If a person causes injury because they operated a vehicle while under the influence, it is proper to seek an award of punitive damages, which is not available in ordinary negligence cases.
One who willfully consumes alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he thereafter must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others. The effect may be lethal whether or not the driver had a prior history of drunk driving incidents. The Taylor v. Superior Court, 24 Cal.3d 890, 897 (Cal. 1979), the California Supreme Court reasoned as follows:
The allowance of punitive damages in such cases may well be appropriate because of another reason, namely, to deter similar future conduct, the “incalculable cost” of which is well documented. (E.g., Coulter, supra, p. 154.) Section 3294 expressly provides that punitive damages may be recovered “for the sake of example.” The applicable principle was well expressed in a recent Oregon case upholding an award of punitive damages against a drunken driver, “the fact of common knowledge that the drinking driver is the cause of so many of the more serious automobile accidents is strong evidence in itself to support the need for all possible means of deterring persons from driving automobiles after drinking, including exposure to awards of punitive damages in the event of accidents.” ( Harrell v. Ames (1973) 265 Or. 183 [ 508 P.2d 211, 214-215, 65 A.L.R.3d 649, italics added.) According to a recent annotation, the Harrell case represents the view of a substantial majority of those courts of other states which have considered the matter. (See Annot. (1975) 65 A.L.R.3d 656, §§ 3-4, at pp. 661-666.)