ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly over the past three months accomplished much in the battle against drunken driving.
The legislature overwhelmingly passed measures requiring ignition interlocks be placed on the vehicles of convicted drunken drivers and permitting a one-year jail sentence for parents and other adults who host underage drinking parties at which an impaired attendee seriously injures themselves or others in driving from the event.
But Maryland lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have enabled very drunken drivers to be held liable for punitive damages if their driving caused death or injury.
The Senate passed the measure, Senate Bill 302, on a 43-1 vote in February, but the bill died in the House Judiciary Committee.
Passage of the measure remains unfinished business for the General Assembly, and the bill will be reintroduced next year, said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Awards of punitive damages are appropriate for “behavior that rises to the level of recklessness,” Zirkin said. “I think that is the right public policy.”
However, the chances of getting the punitive damages bill through the House committee next year appear slim.
To start, the availability of punitive damages is a rarity in Maryland law, as they can generally be awarded only when the defendant acts with evil motive, intent to injure or ill will. Several members of the House committee said this past session that they see no reason to expand that definition to address drunken driving specifically.
For example, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and the committee’s vice chair, said at a hearing on the bill last month that the current ill will standard for a punitive-damages award could be applied to drunken driving without the need for specific legislation.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the committee’s chairman, said Tuesday the bill’s provision of punitive damages for drunken-driving cases “wasn’t really defined.”
“We’re going to be looking at all of the [other states’] statutes to determine what fits best for Maryland,” added Vallario, D-Prince George’s.
Despite the long odds, Zirkin said he remains optimistic.
“Every bill takes time,” he said.
Combating drunken driving requires a three-pronged approach, he continued. The highway scourge must be addressed in the state’s criminal law, with prison sentences; administrative law, through license suspensions and ignition interlocks; and via civil law, with awards of punitive damages “when there are victims of gross negligence and recklessness,” he said.
“That’s what the civil justice system is for,” Zirkin said. “It is to punish the wrongdoer. Society has a stake in ensuring people don’t act with gross negligence or recklessness.”
The legislation that died in the House committee would have allowed for punitive damages if the drunken driver was convicted 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.
Punitive damages would have had to be justified by “clear and convincing evidence” and would have been available only in cases where the victim has been awarded compensatory damages for injuries. The victims would also have had to include a claim for punitive damages in their complaint, and not first raise the claim during trial.
Under Senate Bill 302, judges would have been permitted to review a jury’s award for punitive damages and would have been required to reduce the award if it was “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.”