Drunk Driver Ordered to Pay Victim’s Estate Half a Million Dollars

The following is a cautionary tale about the financial consequences of driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs. Although damages to those injured by a drunk driver’s conduct are often covered by the drunk driver’s vehicle insurance, damages are not the only financial considerations. As part of a state’s criminal law scheme, many judges award restitution to a victim who suffers financial loss due to the criminal activity of the defendant. Often, these restitution awards are not covered by insurance policies and must be paid out of the defendant’s own pocket. This is especially problematic when the drunk driver is married and assets are commingled or when the person’s major asset is the home that his family lives in.

At 4:30am on April 6, 2007, Paul Runyan attempted to drive home from a nightclub. He was drunk. After entering the 134 Freeway the wrong way, he continued driving in the wrong direction for over a mile. Fellow motorists called the police.

California Highway Patrol officer Recato and his partner were on patrol and saw Runyan coming towards them from about 700 feet away. Recator braked and pulled over to the right shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. Donald Benge, who was driving behind the police car, wasn’t so lucky. Benge was killed when Runyan’s car hit him; Runyan had only minor injuries.

About six months later Runyan was charged with murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence causing injury and driving under the influence with a BAC of .08 or greater and causing injury. On November 4, 2008, a jury acquitted Runyan of murder but convicted him of everything else. The trial court conducted a restitution hearing and ordered him to pay just under $450,000 to the estate of the dead man.

Runyan appealed the restitution award, arguing that only the direct victim of the crime (Mr. Benge) was entitled to restitution. As Mr. Benge is dead, restitution would not be possible.

In California, restitution to the victim of a crime is based on Penal Code, section 1202.4 which was enacted in the early 1980’s and provides that “in every case in which a victim has suffered economic loss as a result of the defendant’s conduct, the court shall require the defendant to make restitution to the victim in an amount established by court order based on the amount of loss claimed by the victim or other showing. The section goes on to define the term “victim” to include the immediate surviving family of the victim or a corporation, trust, estate, government or any other legal entity that is the direct victim of a crime.

In People v. Birkett (1999), the California Supreme Court was asked to interpret the meaning of the term “direct victim” as it is used in section 1202.4. In that case, the defendant had stolen multiple cars. Because two of the cars were covered by insurance, the insurance companies made partial payouts to the owners. The trial court ordered the thief to make everybody whole, including the insurance companies that had covered the loss. The California Supreme Court reversed the restitution order, declaring that insurance companies cannot be direct victims of crimes in such cases. As the crime was committed against the insured, not the insurer, restitution was not appropriate.

However, in 2001 the court held that an insurance company was a direct victim where, based on insured’s fraud, it made payments directly to the insured and medical providers on the insured’s behalf. Since the insurance company was the object of the crime, it was also the direct victim.

In this case, however, Benge’s estate did not indemnify or remediate the effects of a crime. In fact, the estate only exists because of the defendant’s crimes. Had Benge been seriously injured rather than killed, he would have been entitled to restitution under section 1202.4. It would be strange for the legislature to provide more protection to those who survive criminal conduct than those who die from it. Since the law also allows family members to recover restitution, it is clear that the legislature did not intend the right of recovery to end with the victim’s death.