In Louisiana, a plaintiff may only recover exemplary damages if expressly authorized by Louisiana law. Exemplary damages are more commonly referred to as punitive damages and are imposed on a defendant in addition to general and compensatory damages. Louisiana Civil Code article 2315.4 expressly permits victims of drunk driving to recover exemplary damages in addition to general and special damages against their tortfeasor (individual allegedly responsible for the harm) if the individual acted with wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others. These damages are punitive in nature and are primarily designed to punish the tortfeasor.
Generally, Louisiana courts provide juries with great discretion in determining the appropriate award of exemplary damages. In Louisiana, the imposition of exemplary damages serves a threefold purpose: punishment, specific deterrence and general deterrence. First, the law seeks to punish the tortfeasor for his wanton or reckless behavior through the imposition of a monetary penalty. Second, the law seeks to use this monetary penalty as a means of specifically deterring the individual tortfeasor from driving while intoxicated in the future. Third, the law seeks to generally deter society from engaging in similar reckless conduct by using the tortfeasor as an example of the consequences of drunk driving.
In assessing exemplary damages, the jury considers all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the extent of harm caused by the tortfeasor’s misconduct, whether the tortfeasor acted in good faith, whether the misconduct was isolated or part of a broader pattern, and whether the tortfeasor behaved recklessly or maliciously. In Louisiana, the jury may also consider the wealth of the tortfeasor in appropriate circumstances in order to accomplish the objectives of exemplary damage.
A defendant may appeal an award of exemplary damages by claiming that the award violated his constitutional right to due process or that the award was excessive. The Louisiana Supreme Court addressed the issue of excessive exemplary damages in Mosing v. Domas, 830 So. 2d 967 (La. 2002), when a defendant appealed a $500,000 award in exemplary damages. In Mosing, the intoxicated defendant struck the plaintiff’s vehicle when fleeing the scene of another collision he had caused. Id. at 970. The defendant also had numerous DWI arrests and was driving with a suspended license at the time of the two accidents. Id. On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the $500,000 award, explaining that punitive damages are based on the defendant’s motive and conduct in committing the tort, not the plaintiff’s injury. Id. at 978¬80.
In Mosing, the Louisiana Supreme Court provided an analytical framework for Louisiana courts to use in determining whether exemplary damages are excessive or unjust. In reviewing appeals of exemplary damages, courts should consider (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (2) the disparity between the harm and/or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the exemplary damages awarded by the jury; and (3) the civil or criminal penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. Id.
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