Drunk driving accidents often cause death or serious injury to drivers, passengers, or other motorists. These accidents raise issues separate from the fact that a DUI conviction typically results in hefty fines, a criminal record, or even jail time. Many state laws allow for a felony DUI (or DWI) charge in cases where the intoxicated driver's alcohol-related acts cause bodily harm or death to another.
This article focuses on legal issues surrounding drunk driving accidents. These include civil liability for injuries and state laws on the legality of blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) testing.
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
Being in an accident can be enough to meet the lower threshold for reasonable suspicion that a law may have been broken. This allows law enforcement to stop and temporarily detain motorists involved in an accident to investigate further.
At this point, an officer may ask one or more of the involved drivers if they were drinking or under the influence of drugs. The officer may look for open containers of alcohol or other tell-tale evidence in plain view. An officer can also look at a driver's eyes for signs of impairment. Finally, the officer may conduct field sobriety tests on potentially impaired drivers.
Suppose the investigation leads the officer to conclude that a motorist is most likely under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In that case, the officer has probable cause to arrest for drunk driving. An officer often bases this determination on the results of a breath test that indicates a blood alcohol content above the legal limit.
An accident may give an officer reasonable suspicion to investigate the scene. However, only solid evidence of intoxication provides the officer with probable cause for a DUI arrest. Some states allow mandatory or discretionary BAC testing of motorists involved in accidents that cause serious injury or death.
BAC Testing for Accidents Causing Serious Injury or Fatalities
Depending on your state, officers may require BAC testing of drivers, passengers, or pedestrians killed in automobile accidents. In other states, testing occurs at the discretion of the officers on the scene. Many states lacking mandatory BAC testing requirements rely on implied consent laws to authorize BAC testing of motorists, passengers, and 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 pedestrians fatally injured in an automobile accident. Roughly half of U.S. states have mandatory testing laws to determine alcohol levels.
- Discretionary Testing: Some states allow for BAC testing of people who are fatally injured in an automobile accident. However, it is up to the discretion of medical examiners or other officials. More than 10 U.S. states have discretionary testing laws to determine the amount of alcohol in a person's system.
BAC Testing for Drunk Driving Accidents Varies by State
Below are some examples of state laws covering the BAC testing of people involved in serious accidents:
- Texas: Texas allows discretionary testing of fatally injured drivers. A justice of the peace may order the appropriate official to conduct a BAC test on a deceased driver if circumstances indicate the likelihood of impaired driving (Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 4910(j)).
- New York: New York mandates BAC testing of fatally injured drivers and pedestrians (Cnt. Law 674(3)(b)).
- California: California has mandatory BAC testing of drivers, occupants, and pedestrians when death occurs less than 24 hours after an accident. This requirement doesn't apply when the deceased is 15 years old or younger unless circumstances indicate the likelihood of impairment (Govt. Code 27491.25).
- Florida: Florida doesn't have any specific laws addressing BAC testing. However, under an implied consent law, a police officer with probable cause may require a driver to consent to a BAC test, using reasonable force if necessary (Florida Statute 316.1933).
- Virginia: Virginia doesn't have any 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.
You may be required to perform community service if you're convicted of a DUI or DWI offense. You also may have to install an ignition interlock device (IID) in your vehicle. An IID is a Breathalyzer device that immobilizes your vehicle if the device indicates your BAC is too high.
This is yet another reason to familiarize yourself with your state's laws regarding chemical testing. Losing driving privileges or being subjected to revocation of your vehicle's registration is a serious consequence of criminal charges, particularly for repeat offenders or underage drivers.
Liability in Drunk Driving Accidents
Suppose you're involved in an accident caused by a drunk driver and can prove it. In that case, you may be able to claim personal injury or property 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.
To make your case, you'll have to:
- Establish the intoxication level of the defendant
- Prove that this level was too high for safe operation of a motor vehicle
- Show that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care for the public's safety
Evidence in such a case usually includes a police report of the incident, witness reports (if available), and expert opinions.
Involved in a Drunk Driving Accident? Get Legal Help
Have you been involved in a car accident? Was alcohol involved? If so, you'll most likely need the help of a defense attorney. This is true regardless of whether it's your first offense or second offense. A driving under the influence or DUI charge can lead to a driver's license suspension and other negative consequences. If you've been arrested, it's best to contact a local DUI attorney for legal advice about your misdemeanor or felony DUI offense.