Last month, Dallas Cowboy's defense lineman, Josh Brent, was charged with intoxication manslaughter after he crashed his car, killing his teammate Jerry Brown. As with many drunk driving fatalities, Brent had a history of driving while intoxicated. If Brent was legally intoxicated at the time of this crash, Brent may also face a hefty civil personal injury lawsuit from Brown's family for both compensatory and punitive damages.
According to police, Brent was driving his Mercedes Benz at a high rate of speed during the early morning hours of December 8, 2012 when he hit a curb and flipped the car. His passenger and teammate, Jerry Brown, was found unresponsive at the scene. He was pronounced dead later that morning in the hospital.
At the crash scene, Brent was given a sobriety test--which he failed. Brent has a history of drunk driving dating back to his years at the University of Illinois. In 2009, Brent was arrested near campus for DUI. After pleading guilty, Brent was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years of probation. If convicted for this latest offense, Brown will face between two and twenty years in prison, along with a maximum $10,000 fine.
To a professional football player, a $10,000 fine is nothing. However, if a wrongful death lawsuit is brought against Brown, the financial ramifications could be much higher. Brown's family may be entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the victim or victims which, in this case, would be Brent's family. This could include potential lost wages which may be high given Brent's profession, along with the loss of companionship Brent had provided to his family.
If Brent is proven to have been both speeding and legally intoxicated when he crashed, a jury would undoubtedly find him guilty of negligence. To prove punitive damages, a jury must find Brent acted with reckless indifference at the time of the crash. Assuming Brent chose to get behind the wheel while intoxicated and chose to drive in excess of the speed limit, a jury will also likely find Brent acted with reckless indifference toward Brown, as his passenger.
In addition to proving reckless indifference, though, a jury would also need to find that Brent's alleged intoxication caused or contributed to the crash. This is called "causation." If intoxication played no role in the crash, then Brent could not be found guilty of reckless indifference for purposes of punitive damages based on intoxication. Of course, if Brent is proven to have been driving far in excess of the speed limit, rather than just five or ten miles over, this could also be a basis for punitive damages; in that instance, high speed would have undoubtedly contributed to the crash. For these reasons, anyone asked to defend Brent in a civil lawsuit would have their work cut out for them. In all likelihood, though, if Brent was well insured, as he should have been as a professional athlete, the case would settle before trial.
More important than any civil or criminal suit, this case is a sad reminder of the dangers of drunk driving and speeding. Nearly 30 people die every day in the US because of alcohol related driving crashes. Speeding is a contributing factor in over 30% of a fatal car crashes. When these two dangers are combined, the risk of a fatal car crash rises exponentially.
USA Today, Cowboys' Josh Brent Arrested After Crash Kills Teammate Jerry Brown, December 8, 2012.
NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts: Speeding, 2008 Data.