Fifth Circuit Mocks Insurance Company For Refusing To Pay Punitive Damages

New decision is a rare victory for plaintiffs

If you are injured in a crash caused by someone driving while intoxicated, file a lawsuit, and receive a punitive damages award from a jury, will you be paid? A surprising federal court ruling from the country’s most conservative federal appellate court of the 13 circuits decisively answered that question.

Background: Carlos Sanchez got drunk at a bar in San Antonio, ran a red light, and slammed into this car driven by Richard Frederking in 2004. Sanchez pled guilty to DWI.

Frederking was seriously injured and sued Sanchez for general and gross negligence and his employer for negligent entrustment of its vehicle.

The jury awarded Frederking $137,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $207,000 in punitive damages because it found that Sanchez acted with gross negligence (a high bar to overcome so awards for punitive damages are uncommon).

However the insurance company refused to pay the punitive damages. It crazily argued that the collision was excluded from coverage because it was not an “accident” but that Sanchez (in his inebriated state) had committed an intentional act. The company also said the crash was a natural and expected result of its policyholder choosing to drive while intoxicated.

The plaintiff was required to file a second lawsuit against the insurance company in state court. The case was removed to federal court which found in favor of the insurance company.

Tuesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed and remanded that decision in Frederking v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, 18-50536.

In a blistering decision, the court wrote that the insurer’s efforts to escape paying this victim were typical of the industry. “Only an insurance company could come up with” an argument this contorted, the decision written by James Ho, a judge appointed by President Trump, sarcastically began.

The three-judge panel found that no court had ever endorsed such a ridiculous interpretation of the word “accident” and that any driver would assume that the negligent driver was covered even if he or she were drunk.

Judge Ho has already stirred up controversy with his decisions or dissents on hot political topics. His and many other Trump Administration appointments have sharply turned the nation’s bench to the right.

Texas, we have a problem: we are again #1 in fatal accidents involving alcohol

Far too many Texans have to fight drunk drivers in court like Frederking did.

In 2017, the last year for which the federal government has released statistics, Texas was regrettably once again first in this terrible category. And worse, the Lone Star State was at the top of all three levels of driver intoxication: from .01-.08 blood alcohol content, .08-.15 BAC, and above .15 BAC.

A driver can be charged with DWI if he or she has a blood-alcohol content of .08.

How much is that? If you are a typical 200-pound man, consuming six cans of beer over a 2.5-hour period will usually make you legally drunk. And if you were a 150-pound woman, even if you stretched your six beers across five hours, you’d still be over the limit.

I have advocated for lowering the limit to .o5%.  Utah just did. Many countries have a 0.0% alcohol tolerance. Not one drop.

Berenson Injury Law proudly supports MADD’s efforts to end drunk driving

In Texas the threat of injury or death as a result of a driver’s driving drunk is extreme. Over 1,000 Texans lost their lives in 2017 because a driver was DWI. There’s no reason these accidents should be more numerous here than in California, which has millions more drivers.

We need to change our laws in Texas to impose more serious civil and criminal penalties on the people who choose to drive drunk.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is working to make Texas roads safer, a goal we should all get behind.

MADD’s most recent victory was getting HB 3582 signed into law last month. This increases the incentive for first-time offenders to agree to have engine interlocks installed in their vehicles so that drunk drivers are kept off of our streets. Here is more information about the new law. The original law has already proven to be highly effective.

Berenson Injury Law is proud to be the Champion Sponsor of the North Texas Walk Like MADD on September 7th. We are also donating $50.00 restaurant gift certificates to each of the fastest male and female runners in the under 40 and over 40 categories. You can register for the race/walk or donate by clicking here.

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