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Sen. Jamin B. ‘Jamie’ Raskin, D-Montgomery (File photo)

Md. senator urges House to permit punitive damages against drunken drivers

ANNAPOLIS – Citing the drunken-driving-related death of a police officer, a senator urged delegates Thursday to approve a Senate-passed bill enabling very drunken drivers to be held liable for punitive damages if their driving caused death or injury.

Maryland law “governing drunk driving has just been too weak to deter people,” Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin told the House Judiciary Committee.

Permitting awards of punitive damages “will increase the deterrent function of the civil law,” added Raskin, D-Montgomery, who was opposed at the hearing by insurance industry representatives.

Raskin is chief sponsor of Senate Bill 302, which would allow for punitive damages if the drunken driver was convicted of drunken driving within the past 10 years and had a blood alcohol concentration of .15 – nearly twice the legal minimum of drunkenness – when his or her driving caused the death or other injury.

The availability of punitive damages is a rarity in Maryland law, as they can generally be awarded only when the defendant acted with evil motive, intent to injure or ill will.

But Raskin said punitive damages should also be available for instances of “aggressive drunk driving” that cause an innocent person’s death or injury.

He cited Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, 24, who was struck and killed in December by a suspected drunk driver during a traffic stop involving another motorist. Leotta was on a police task force that enforced laws against drunk driving.

“We should take all appropriate action” to deter “the profoundly antisocial act” of drunken driving, said Raskin. “We cannot stick our heads in the sand.”

Under SB 302, punitive damages would have to be justified by “clear and convincing evidence” and would be available only in cases where the victim has been awarded compensatory damages for injuries. The victims would also have to include a claim for punitive damages in their complaint, and not first raise the claim during trial.

Judges would be permitted to review a jury’s award for punitive damages, which must be reduced if it is “disproportionate” to the award of compensatory damages or “disproportionate to the [driver’s] conduct, taking into account the gravity and continuing nature of the conduct.”

“It’s hard for me,” Raskin said, “to think of a more morally blameworthy act” than drunken driving.

But Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House committee, wondered aloud if the legislation is needed, as the current “ill will” standard for a punitive damages award could apply to drunken driving.

Insurance industry representatives testified against the bill, telling the committee that punishing drunken drivers is the province of criminal law, not civil litigation.

Drunken drivers are judgment-proof to the extent they would often lack the financial ability  to pay punitive damages, said H. Barritt Peterson Jr. on behalf of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

“This bill is about money,” Peterson added. “You are not punishing the drunk.”

The Senate passed Raskin’s measure Feb. 19 on a 43-1 vote.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly, the only senator to vote against the measure, said then that punishment is generally the province of criminal law, not civil litigation.

“Drunk driving is a scourge on our community,” said Reilly, R-Anne Arundel. “[But] this is a fundamental change in the civil law.”