While a DUI conviction typically results in hefty fines and a criminal record, or even jail time, drunk driving accidents often cause death or serious injury to the driver, passengers, or other motorists. A number of state laws allow for a felony DUI (or DWI) charge in cases where the driver's alcohol-related acts have caused bodily harm or death to another.
This article focuses on legal issues surrounding drunk driving accidents, including civil liability for injuries and state laws regarding the legality of blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) testing after an accident.
See FindLaw's complete coverage of "DUI Law" for more topics and resources, including a directory of DUI attorneys and state-by-state summaries of drunk driving laws.
DUI Accidents and Probable Cause
Simply being in an accident can meet the lower threshold for "reasonable suspicion" that a law may have been broken, allowing a police officer to stop and temporarily detain the motorists involved for the purpose of investigating further.
At this point, the officer may ask one or more of the drivers involved if they had been drinking; look to see if any beer cans or other tell-tale evidence is in plain view; or look at the drivers' eyes for signs of impairment. The officer also may conduct field sobriety tests.
If the investigation leads the officer to conclude that a motorist most likely is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, often based on the results of a BAC test, then the officer has "probable cause" to make an arrest for drunk driving.
Therefore, an accident may give an officer reasonable suspicion to investigate the scene, but only solid evidence of intoxication gives the officer probable cause for a DUI arrest. However, some states allow either mandatory or discretionary BAC testing of motorists involved in accidents that cause serious injury or death.
BAC Testing for Accidents Causing Serious Injury or Death
Depending on your state, officers may require BAC testing of drivers, passengers, and/or pedestrians killed in automobile accidents. In other states, however, testing occurs at the discretion of the officers on the scene. Many of the states lacking mandatory BAC testing requirements rely on implied consent law to authorize BAC testing of motorists, passengers, and/or pedestrians seriously injured or killed in accidents.
Thus, most state laws regarding BAC testing of motorists after serious accidents fall into one of the following two categories, although these laws vary in scope:
- Mandatory Testing - Many states require BAC testing of all drivers, passengers, and/or pedestrians who are fatally injured in an automobile accident. Roughly half of U.S. states have mandatory testing laws.
- Discretionary Testing - Some states allow for BAC testing of individuals who are fatally injured in an automobile accident, although it is up to the discretion of medical examiners or other officials. More than 10 U.S. states have discretionary testing laws.
Below are examples of state laws covering the BAC testing of those involved in serious accidents:
- Texas - Discretionary testing of fatally injured drivers. Justice of the peace may order appropriate official to conduct BAC test on deceased driver if circumstances indicate the likelihood of impaired driving (Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 4910(j)).
- New York - Mandatory BAC testing of fatally injured drivers and pedestrians (Cnt. Law 674(3)(b)).
- California - Mandatory BAC testing of driver, occupants, and pedestrians when death occurs less than 24 hours after accident; not applicable when deceased is 15 or younger, unless circumstances indicate the likelihood of impairment (Govt. Code 27491.25).
- Florida - No specific laws addressing this, but under implied consent law an officer with probable cause may require a driver to consent to a BAC test, using "reasonable force" if necessary (Florida Statute 316.1933).
- Virginia - No specific laws or implied consent provisions related to BAC testing following serious accidents.
Check with your state's impaired driving statutes or speak with a DUI attorney for more state-specific information about post-accident BAC testing.
Liability in Drunk Driving Accidents
If you are involved in an accident caused by a drunk driver, and can prove it, then you may claim damages in a civil lawsuit. You may also pursue a wrongful death lawsuit if a family member was killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver.
In order to make your case, you will have to establish the intoxication level of the defendant, prove that this level was too high for safe operation of a motor vehicle, and show that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care for the public's safety. Evidence used in such a case will usually include a police report of the incident, witness reports (if available), and expert opinions.
Involved in a Drunk Driving Accident? Get Legal Help
If you were involved in a car accident, particularly if alcohol may have been involved, you'll most likely need professional legal help. If you've been arrested, it's best to contact a local DUI attorney who can analyze the evidence, scrutinize police methods, and generally advocate for your best interests.