A deadly crash earlier this week has left a motorcyclist dead and another in custody on suspicions that he was driving under the influence. The driver, 35 year-old Tarus Riggins, was operating a silver Porsche SUV when his vehicle struck Patrick Kuhen as he was driving his motorcycle at Ponce de Leon Avenue and Clifton Road, resulting in Kuhen’s death. While the criminal case may take years to arrive at a resolution, the surviving family members of Kuhen are likely entitled to compensation for the wrongful death of Kuhen at the hands of Riggins. A wrongful death suit entitles the claimant to the full value of the life of the decedent resulting from a homicide, which is defined in the Georgia Code as “all cases in which the death of a human being results from a crime, from criminal or other negligence.”
Moreover, aggravating circumstances can increase the amount the family members of a victim may receive. Aggravating circumstances give rise to punitive damages, which may be awarded only in tort actions in which “it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Furthermore, the Georgia Code specifically provides that if it is found that the defendant acted, or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, “there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages against an active tort-feasor.” Thus, the amount which the victims of a drunk driver may recover is limitless, although actual recovery of the funds awarded in a judgment can occasionally pose difficulties due to the drunk driver’s financial situation. For example, if a defendant against whom a civil verdict is rendered for a tort action arising from drunk driving is impoverished, there may be little that a prevailing plaintiff can do to recover the amount awarded. However, where such a defendant is financially stable, or owns a significant number of assets, the prevailing plaintiff can reach all of the assets to recoup the amount awarded through the judgment.
Additionally, even bankruptcy cannot protect a financially stable defendant from recovery. Although bankruptcy generally discharges the debts of the filing party some debts are non-dischargeable, meaning that even after filing for bankruptcy, the filing party is still liable for the amount owed under the debts, and a debt incurred through a tort suit as a result of drunk driving is a type of debt that is non-dischargeable. This rule operates so as to protect injured plaintiffs from forfeiting their recovery due to a wealthy defendant hiding behind the bankruptcy laws. So, where the court finds that an award of punitive damages is proper, the plaintiff can then seek discovery of the defendant’s assets, bank accounts, or other financial holdings to demonstrate to the jury what amount of damages will be sufficient to deter, penalize, or punish the defendant in light of the circumstances of the case. The actual amount of punitive damages awarded is then left for the jury, or trier of fact, to determine.
The jury in a civil case involving vehicular homicide, particularly where the defendant was driving drunk will be particularly costly to a wealthy defendant. After a defendant is convicted of DUI in criminal court, the plaintiff in the civil suit can often use the criminal conviction to prevent the defendant from denying that he was operating the vehicle while intoxicated due to the burden of proof being higher in criminal court than civil court – criminal cases require a charge to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, where civil cases only require the charge be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. Then, because the amount of the verdict is dependent upon the jury’s determination, the fact that a defendant has significant financial holdings or assets may weigh on the jury’s deliberation in finalizing an amount to award. So, where a defendant drives a Porsche and is convicted of DUI in criminal court of killing a motorcyclist, the jury will take into consideration the DUI as an aggravating circumstance giving rise to punitive damages, and the financial status of the defendant will likely lead the jury towards favoring a higher recovery.
Please note that the Law Offices of Kevin C. Ford is currently accepting motorcycle crash, motorcyle accident and vehicular wreck cases throughout the State of Georgia. If you or a loved one has been injured as the result of the tortious conduct of a motorist, then please contact me immediately, as time if of the essence and crucial information and evidence needs to be secured as soon as possible. We have the necessary experience to help you!