Punative Damages In Texas & Uninsured / Underinsured Claims

What if you live in Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Dallas, Weatherford, or any other town in Texas and you are in a wreck with a drunk driver? Can you get punative damages from your ininsured / underinsured (UM) insurance policy because the other person was drunk at the time of the accident?
This is one of the issues in the case, Suzanne Vanderlinden v. United Services Automobile Association Property and Casualty Insurance Company. This case was decided in 1994, by the Texarkana Court of Appeals.
In this case Vanderlinden was injured in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver. At the trial of this matter the trial judge would not let Vanderlindens’ attorney submit a jury question to the jury asking for punative damages due to the other driver being drunk. Vanderlinden was sueing her own insurance company, United Services Automobile Association Property and Casualty Insurance Company (USAA) to recover monies by way of the underinsured motorist coverage portion of her insurance policy with USAA. The Texarkana Court cited an 1849, Texas Supreme Court case saying, “Punative damages are typically not to compensate a damaged plaintiff for his injuries; rather, they are to discourage the defendant from continuing his heinous activities and to likewise discourage others from similarly misbehaving.” Thus, the issue in this case is whether an injured person may obtain punative damages from the injured persons insurance company through the underinsured motorist clause.
The policy language says the insurer will:
… pay all sums which the insured … shall be legally entitled to recover as damages from the owner or operator of an automobile ….
The court also noted that the Texas Insurance Code, Section 1952.101, requires this UM coverage to be made available in all automobile insurance policies.
Furthermore, the Texas Insurance Code is to be liberally construed to give full effect to the policy which led to its enactment and the court is to review the statutory definition of exemplary damages as “any damages awarded as an example to others, as a penalty, or by way of punichment,” See also the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code, Section 41.001(3).
In the courts’ ruling they stated; “Most states that have expressly considered this question have held that in this context an insurance company should not be liable for punitive damages because to allow such recovery would be antithetic to the acknowledged purpose to be served by rendition of such damages.”
In reaching this conclusion the court cited and took the reasoning from the following”
1) Milligan v. State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. – Houston 14th Court of Appeals – 1997,
2) State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. v. Shaffer – Houston 1st Court of Appeals – 1994 3) Government Employees Ins. Co. v. Lichte – El Paso Court of Appeals – 1991

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