It’s a challenge to feel safe behind the wheel when you share the road with so many bad drivers. Many drivers out on our nation’s roads operate vehicles negligently. They may speed through red lights or drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs. If you’re in an adjacent lane, bad drivers may crash into your car. These actions may seem inexcusable to a safety-conscious driver, but they that doesn’t mean that they necessarily meet the legal definition of reckless driving.
Reckless drivers are in an extreme category all on their own. They manifest the worst of the worst driving habits, and their actions surpass traditional ideas of negligence. Reckless drivers often cause extensive damage and catastrophic injuries. When a criminal court convicts them of a crime for their bad behavior, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, because you know they likely deserve it.
When a reckless driver injures you, speaking with a lawyer for a conviction should ease the damage recovery process, but it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s an unfair consequence, but the other guy’s reckless driving conviction can create problems for both of you. A criminal conviction is one sure way to keep a truly bad driver off the road—at least temporarily. Unfortunately, it could also cause liability coverage issues that complicate your damage recovery.
Reckless Driving: You Recognize It When You See It
When a driver careens through an intersection without slowing down, rams your car, and crashes into a pole, you probably have no doubt in your mind that he’s driving recklessly. If you’re seriously injured during the impact, you don’t care if the other guy was reckless, distracted, aggressive, out of control, or simply negligent. You just want him to pay for the damages he caused.
Most studies have concluded that men are more likely than women to drive recklessly. When the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety analyzed U.S. Department of Transportation accident data, it concluded that men drive more miles, practice more risky driving behaviors, and die in auto crashes more frequently than women.
Bad drivers habitually drive carelessly and aggressively. They often commit what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls risky driving behaviors. It’s the added element of intentionality that transforms a driver’s bad actions into reckless driving and criminal behavior. When a law enforcement officer cites someone for reckless driving, the officer usually has evidence that the driver engaged in one or more of the following behaviors:
- Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Distracted driving (texting, talking, eating, putting on makeup, etc.)
- Driving in the wrong direction
- Driving aggressively
- Running a red light
- Failure to stop at a stop sign
- Drag racing in the street
- Ignoring a stopped school bus
These and other actions violate local and state motor vehicle statutes. A court might also consider them negligent, but a law enforcement officer must decide at the accident scene if the actions constitute negligence. Despite his studied opinion, a police officer can’t guarantee that a court will convict a driver of reckless operation. Law enforcement officials generally cover all contingencies by citing a driver with one or more of the above traffic violations and also citing him or her for a reckless driving crime.
Yes, Reckless Driving Is a Crime
Reckless operation is bad driving, but it’s also a criminal offense. To determine if a driver has committed a crime, a law enforcement officer must examine the accident scene, listen to the drivers’ versions, interview witnesses, and make a judgment call. As with any crime, the court makes the final decision based on state statutes and available evidence. Below we provide more specific regarding reckless driving in Louisiana, Texas, and California:
- Louisiana: Under Lousiana law, the “Reckless Operation of a Vehicle” is a criminal offense. A conviction requires that a court find a driver guilty of operating a vehicle in “a criminally negligent or reckless manner.” The punishment for conviction may include a fine up to $200, imprisonment for up to 90 days, or both.
- Texas: Under Texas law, a reckless driver is a driver who operates a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” A person is subject to a reckless operation charge while driving on public roads and highways and also in a private access way or parking area. Punishments include a fine up to $200, confinement for up to 30 days, or both.
- California: In the Golden State, the law defines a reckless driver as “A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Those convicted of the crime can face 90 days in jail and fines of $1,000.
Because of the intentional component of the crime, a reckless operation charge is often difficult to prosecute. The prosecution must prove the driver’s state of mind at the time of the accident, which requires producing meaningful evidence or getting into the offending driver’s head enough to encourage a confession. A conviction is also subject to a criminal defense attorney’s willingness to dispute his client’s guilt. A defense attorney may also attempt to plea down a reckless driving charge to a non-criminal traffic charge.
When a reckless driver’s insurer decides to settle, the insured’s designation as a reckless operator may help fast-track your claim or lawsuit. Insurance companies try to avoid courtroom scenes that might reveal their insured’s horrid driving behavior in court, which may lead to a high-dollar judgment and excess liability exposure. To prevent this, insurance companies will cooperate to settle out of court. That can mean minimal liability discussions, easier negotiations, and higher settlements.
Economic and Non-Economic Damages
Injury settlements customarily include a dollar amount to reimburse your medical bills, therapy costs, lost wages, and other calculable damages incurred due to an accident. While these are often easily provable based on receipts, bills, and employer documentation, non-economic damages present a challenge. A plaintiff must prove pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and other vague damages based on emotional and psychological issues experienced as a result of the accident.
Punitive or Exemplary Damages
Courts award punitive damages when a defendant acts in a manner worthy of punishment. While the standard of proof varies from state to state, the dangerous driving behavior required for a reckless driving conviction helps a plaintiff present a favorable case. A court convicts a driver of reckless driving because of criminally negligent behavior or willful and wanton disregard for safety. Criminal and civil cases have different standards of proof, but if the evidence supports a conviction in criminal court, it will likely help support a claim for punitive or exemplary damages in a civil case.
A Reckless Driver May Attempt to Sabotage Your Liability Claim
If a court convicts a responsible party of reckless driving, his or her conviction can make it more difficult for you to recover damages from the liability carrier. Proving fault to the insurance company is often the simplest part of the process. It’s the coverage issues that may complicate the process.
Intentional Act Exclusions
When a reckless driver crashes into your car, the criminal charges often take center stage. If you don’t make it clear that your accident also involved negligence issues, the driver’s crimes can affect your potential for damage recovery.
Auto policies usually exclude bodily injury and property damage when caused intentionally. While the damages a reckless driver causes are often accidental, the initiating factors are sometimes intentional. When a person is driving under the influence, speeding, drag racing, or committing some other dangerous act, an accident is a reasonable, if not an expected, outcome. That expectation is one of the factors that makes reckless driving a crime as well as an intentional act.
Insurance companies write liability policies with exclusions that bar the hazards that they never wanted to cover in the first place. Some personal auto policies exclude coverage for specifically described dangerous activities, such as racing, stunts, or other exhibitions, whether planned or informal. Auto policies also exclude damages or injuries caused by an intentional act. When you present a liability claim, it’s important to downplay the intentional acts and focus on the negligence allegations. Otherwise, the liability insurance company might deny your claim.
Coverage for Punitive or Exemplary Damages
If you prove that a driver acted willfully or wantonly or in a criminally negligent or reckless manner, you may meet the standards for a punitive damage award. Punitive damage awards are often difficult to collect when the insurance company denies coverage or the responsible party has limited financial resources.
Some states consider it against public policy for an insurer to assume responsibility for paying an award meant to punish a liable party. Under certain situations in Louisiana, it’s not against public policy for an insurer to pay punitive or exemplary damages. The insurance company still has the right to deny payment if the policy language excludes such.
In other instances, a liability insurer may take the position that punitive damages simply aren’t covered by an auto policy. A recent ruling on the issue came before the Texas Court of Appeals in the case, Farmers Texas County Mutual Insurance Company v. Jennifer Zuniga. The background and issues are complicated, but the important part is that the court determined that punitive damages are neither bodily injury nor property damage, and therefore not covered by an auto policy.
Low Liability Coverage Limits
If a reckless driver’s insurer agrees to pay your claim, you might find out that his or her policy limits are too low to cover your damages. The US DOT FARS Data tables provide a simple rationale for this coverage issue. Low policy limits are often one of the consequences when a driver has a consistently bad driving history. Many drivers involved in fatal accidents have previous convictions for motor vehicle crashes, speeding, DUI, license suspensions, and revocations.
Traditional companies won’t insure a driver when they have a bad driving history with multiple citations and convictions. If they do, they charge higher premiums and add on a surcharge that makes the premiums even higher. High-risk drivers can rarely afford traditional insurance policies. Accordingly, such drivers work to meet state financial responsibility requirements by purchasing lower-cost policies with state minimum liability limits.
- In Louisiana, a driver must have 15/30/25 limits: $15,000 in bodily injury coverage per person and $30,000 per accident, and $25,000 in property damage liability coverage.
- In Texas, the limits are 30/60/25. A driver must have a $30,000 per person bodily injury limit and $60,000 per accident, and $25,000 in property damage liability coverage.
- California requires $15,000 per person, $30,000 per accident, and $5,000 for property damage.
What Happens When a Reckless Driver Has No Insurance?
All states, except New Hampshire, require licensed drivers and vehicle owners to maintain liability insurance. Despite stringent state financial responsibility statutes and stiff penalties for non-compliance, some people still drive without insurance. This dynamic often happens when a driver is uninsurable through traditional channels. Sometimes a driver or vehicle owner can’t afford coverage due to a spotty driving history or a previous accident.
If you’re injured by an uninsured or underinsured reckless driver, you still have recovery options. if you have Uninsured Motorist (UM) or Underinsured Motorist (UIM) coverage, your insurance carrier pays the damages you would have recovered from the reckless driver’s insurance carrier. UIM pays the difference in damages when a responsible party has insurance but not enough to cover your injury claim.
UM coverage comes into play in the following circumstances:
- You are injured by a driver who has no liability insurance at the time of the accident.
- The driver or owner has a policy, but the insurance company declines coverage.
- The driver causes damages due to a direct contact accident, leaves the scene, and remains unidentifiable.
When you submit a UM or UIM claim, it’s important to remember that your insurance carrier is assuming the role of the liability carrier. Your policy might exclude damages caused by intentional acts.
Your Insurance Carrier Might Ignore the Conflict of Interests
When you have UM or UIM coverage, your insurance carrier assumes the role of the responsible driver’s liability insurance company. Theoretically, your insurance company represents both you and the other driver. This arrangement often presents a conflict of interests.
Your company’s claim department investigates the accident to determine liability. It will evaluate your injury and negotiate a settlement based on the damages you’re legally entitled to collect from a liable driver. Issues with your injury evaluation, punitive damage insurability, and other relevant concerns may restrict coverage or damages.
As your insurance company must fill both the insurer roles for both you and the liable driver, administering your claim establishes a potential conflict of interests. Your policy dictates your actions and requires your complete cooperation. You must produce medical records, doctor’s reports, statements, and documents on demand. If you were dealing with another insurance company, they couldn’t compel you to cooperate until you were ready or legally required to do so.
Underinsured Motorist or Underinsured Motorists Coverages Are Optional
Uninsured Motorists and Underinsured Motorist coverages aren’t mandatory in Texas or California. Your insurance company must offer the coverage option when you purchase your policy, but it’s your decision whether or not you purchase or reject the coverage.
In Louisiana, an insurance carrier must provide UM and UIM coverage in amounts equal to your liability limits. If you don’t want the coverages, you must reject them in writing. You may also obtain lower UM and UIM limits through written request.
Do You Need a Lawyer? Yes!
Auto accidents with injuries are difficult to manage under normal circumstances. If you or a family member were injured in a crash with a reckless driver, you need an experienced legal representative with skills, experience, resources, and a drive to make them pay. An attorney can address liability and coverage issues, determine if you have a viable UM or UIM claim, present your damages claim or lawsuit, and protect your legal interests.
Technological advances allow injured clients to consult with skilled attorneys 24 hours a day. Client-focused law firms provide interactive options, so you can discuss your accident without leaving the comfort of home.
Since starting his firm in 1999, Stewart J. Guss has had the honor of representing clients from all over the world, helping them recover from even the most catastrophic injuries.
Today, thanks to a strong belief in those values of compassion, respect, and approachability, the firm has grown to employ over 120 legal professionals in numerous offices across 4 states, with nationwide reach.