While driving home after the night shift, a swerving pickup truck blew through a red light and clipped your rear fender, causing a spin-out. Your car was damaged, and you think you may have suffered whiplash.
The driver appears to be heavily intoxicated and smells of alcohol. The possible drunk driver would appear to be at fault and liable for your injuries. But what if the situation were reversed, and you were the one who ran the red light, striking a drunk driver who was otherwise following the rules of the road?
It's not always clear who's liable when in a drunk driving accident. It is possible that both parties contributed some level of negligence. The injured party still has to prove that the other party's negligence or reckless actions were the proximate cause of the injuries. This is true even if the other party is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). Even then, both parties could still be partially at fault.
Determining who is liable for an accident when at least one of the parties is impaired comes down to the facts and what caused the incident.
How Fault and Liability Are Determined: The Basics
If you are in a collision with a drunk driver, the negligence associated with their intoxication is likely to blame. But as a matter of law, there has to be clear causation connecting the actions of the impaired driver to the accident and injuries. It's helpful to understand the basic elements of a negligence case:
- Duty: When you're on the road, you have a duty to follow traffic rules, yield to avoid known hazards, and generally respect the safety of others.
- Breach of duty: Speeding, driving recklessly, and driving while impaired constitute breaches of this duty.
- Cause in fact: This element focuses on the direct relationship between the driver's negligence and the injuries sustained. If the injuries do not directly follow from the negligence, there is no cause in fact.
- Proximate cause: If the injuries were outside of the scope of what the impaired driver could have reasonably foreseen, then the plaintiff can't prove that the driver's impairment was the proximate cause of the injuries.
- Damages: The plaintiff must prove they actually suffered damages, such as damage to their vehicle and/or bodily injuries. They must also prove the extent of the damages.
If you were in an accident with a drunk driver and suffered damages, it can be reasonably assumed they breached their legal duty by driving while impaired. However, to establish negligence, you must still demonstrate that:
- The breach of duty (drunk driving) was in fact a cause of your damages. This means that the damages would not have happened but for the drunk driver's breach of duty.
- The driver's condition and resulting negligence were the proximate cause of your damages. In other words, you must show that the drunk driver's actions were closely enough related to your damages that they can be held legally responsible.
Using the example above, if you collided with a drunk driver because you ran a red light, you may not be able to prove that their negligence was the cause of the accident. So, even if they are arrested for a DUI, you may not have a claim against the driver. While these instances are rare, liability is always determined by these elements.
You Were Hit by a Drunk Driver, but You're Partially at Fault
It's always possible that both the drunk driver and the other motorist contributed to the accident.
For example, let's say you are sending a text message while trying to change lanes. You cut off a driver who is drunk and speeding in the right lane. The intoxicated driver rear-ends you, and you suffer both vehicle damage and bodily injury. If the other driver weren't intoxicated, they may have been able to avoid hitting you. But if you hadn't been distracted by your mobile phone, you wouldn't have cut off the other driver in the first place. So, who's liable?
While you still likely would have a valid claim against the drunk driver, they may be able to show that you also were at least partially at fault. This is an example of comparative or contributory negligence. The majority of states use comparative negligence laws. These laws reduce damages by the percentage of fault attributable to the plaintiff. While courts generally take a hard line against drunk driving, they also are aware of the dangers associated with distracted driving. So, it would be up to a jury to decide the amount of fault each party bears.
How Do I Handle Insurance Companies After a Drunk Driving Accident?
When you've been involved in a drunk driving accident, one of the first steps you'll likely take (after calling the police and getting medical attention) is reporting the incident to your insurance company. You'll need to provide them with all the relevant details of the accident, including the fact that the other driver was intoxicated. Keep in mind that insurance companies are often more focused on limiting their own liability than on making sure you're fully compensated for your damages. Be cautious in your interactions with them.
One crucial piece of evidence in your favor is the police report, which should document the other driver's intoxication. A driver's insurance company may be more willing to settle an accident claim if there's solid proof that their insured was under the influence of alcohol.
It's often in your best interests to let your attorney speak to the insurance companies on your behalf. These companies can take anything you say and use it against your case.
What Happens if a Drunk Driving Accident Causes Wrongful Death?
In some unfortunate cases, drunk driving accidents result in fatalities. If your loved one was killed by a drunk driver, you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit to seek compensation for the loss. A wrongful death claim may cover:
- Funeral expenses
- Loss of the deceased's income
- Emotional pain and suffering
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The eligibility to file a wrongful death claim varies by jurisdiction. Typically, the executor or personal representative of the deceased's estate files the lawsuit. But certain relatives like spouses, children, and parents may also be able to bring a claim. Some states allow extended family members or even non-related financial dependents to file. An attorney can guide you on who is eligible for your specific case.
The purpose of the claim is to seek compensation for the losses these individuals have suffered due to the death.
These losses can include, but are not limited to:
- Medical expenses incurred prior to death
- Funeral and burial costs
- Loss of the deceased's expected income
- Loss of any inheritance as a result of the death
- Value of the services that the deceased would have provided
- Pain, suffering, and mental anguish suffered by the survivors
- Loss of care, protection, guidance, and nurturing that the deceased would have provided
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
In a wrongful death case, you can seek both economic and non-economic damages.
- Economic Damages: Tangible financial losses resulting from the death, such as funeral and burial expenses, loss of the deceased's expected income, and loss of inheritance
- Non-Economic Damages: Intangible damages related to the survivors' loss, including loss of companionship, and loss of care and nurturing the deceased would have provided
Process of a Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim generally follows these steps:
- Consultation with an attorney: This step involves finding a skilled wrongful death attorney who can evaluate your case.
- Investigation: The attorney will conduct a thorough investigation by gathering police reports, BAC results, witness statements, and other relevant information.
- Filing the claim: The attorney will file a wrongful death claim on your behalf against the at-fault driver, seeking compensation for your losses.
- Settlement negotiations: The defendant's insurance company may propose a settlement to avoid a lengthy court case. Your attorney will negotiate on your behalf to get a fair settlement.
- Trial: If a fair settlement cannot be reached, your case may go to trial, where a judge or jury will decide the outcome.
A wrongful death claim can't replace your loved one. But it can provide financial stability during a difficult time and perhaps give you a sense of justice. A car accident attorney will guide you through this process.
What Are Punitive Damages in Drunk Driving Cases?
In addition to compensatory damages, which cover economic losses like medical bills and property damage, you may also be able to seek punitive damages in a drunk driving crash case.
Punitive damages are not awarded in every case. Instead, they are typically reserved for instances where the defendant's actions went beyond mere negligence and were especially egregious or outrageous.
Such behavior may include acts that are:
- Reckless: The defendant knew or should have known their actions were likely to cause harm but disregarded this risk
- Malicious: The defendant intentionally caused harm
- Fraudulent: The defendant intentionally misled or deceived
- Grossly Negligent: The defendant's conduct was so lacking in care or reckless that it constituted indifference to or a conscious disregard for the safety, life, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct
Drunk driving often falls into this category because it is a conscious decision that puts others at extreme risk.
Punitive damages are meant to punish the at-fault driver and deter similar reckless behavior in the future. The possibility of punitive damages is often a factor in accident case settlements involving drunk drivers.
However, it's worth noting that the specific standards for awarding punitive damages can vary greatly by jurisdiction. Some states require a showing of malice or a level of outrageous conduct that goes beyond the limits of what is acceptable in a civilized society. Speaking with an attorney is the best way to understand the applicability and potential for punitive damages in your specific situation.
Calculating Punitive Damages
There's no set formula for determining the amount of punitive damages in a drunk driving case. Instead, courts consider various factors such as:
- The severity of the defendant's misconduct: The more egregious the defendant's actions, the higher the punitive damages may be. For instance, if a driver was extremely intoxicated or if they were a repeat DUI offender, the court might award higher punitive damages.
- The harm to the plaintiff: Courts look at the harm suffered by the plaintiff, which can be both physical (such as catastrophic injuries) and emotional (such as trauma or loss of a loved one).
- The defendant's financial status: The defendant's wealth or financial status may be considered. The idea is to set the punitive damages high enough to deter the defendant and others with similar financial resources from such behavior in the future.
Dealing With Medical Expenses After a Drunk Driving Accident
One of the most significant burdens for accident victims after a drunk driving crash is the cost of medical expenses. Even if you have health insurance, you may still have high deductibles and copayments. If the other driver is found to be at fault, their auto insurance coverage should help cover your medical bills. Still, you need to work with a lawyer to ensure you receive fair compensation.
Dram Shop Laws and Drunk Driving Accidents
In some states, dram shop laws allow accident victims to hold alcohol providers accountable if they served a visibly intoxicated person who then caused a motor vehicle accident. If this applies to your case, you may be able to seek damages from:
- A bar
- A restaurant
- A private host
Criminal Charges and Civil Lawsuits in Drunk Driving Cases
If the other driver was intoxicated, they likely would face criminal charges for DUI. However, a criminal case is separate from a civil lawsuit you may file to seek compensation for your damages. Both cases can proceed simultaneously. The outcome of the criminal case can potentially influence your civil claim. For instance, a driver's DUI conviction can serve as powerful evidence of negligence in your accident case.
On-Site Sobriety Tests and Accident Claims
If a police officer suspects a driver is under the influence of alcohol, they may administer field sobriety tests (FSTs) at the accident scene. You may also choose to decline to take the tests, however, it does not absolve you from being arrested along with further legal implications.
There are three standardized FSTs used by most law enforcement agencies in the United States:
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test: The officer looks for involuntary jerking of the driver's eyes as they slowly move from side to side.
- Walk-and-Turn Test: The driver is asked to walk heel-to-toe along a straight line, turn around, and walk back in the same manner.
- One-Leg Stand Test: The driver must stand on one foot while counting aloud until instructed to stop.
If the driver fails these tests, the officer may have probable cause to arrest them for DUI.
The results of these tests can serve as evidence in both the criminal case against the drunk driver and in your civil personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. The prosecutor can use these test results, along with other evidence like breathalyzer results and the officer's observations, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was under the influence of alcohol.
Field sobriety tests can also be significant in a civil lawsuit for personal injury or wrongful death. The test results could be used to show that the driver was negligent. Negligence is a key element to prove in personal injury lawsuits. It establishes that the driver's careless behavior directly caused your injuries or your loved one's death.
In a civil lawsuit, you need to prove the driver's negligence by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a lower standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in criminal cases. This means you need to show that it's more likely than not that the driver was negligent. Field sobriety tests can be compelling evidence of this negligence.
Hit by a Drunk Driver? Get Legal Advice From a Personal Injury Lawyer
Car accidents can be traumatic. They often result in serious injuries when involving drunk drivers. But it's not always clear who's liable for a DUI accident, especially when multiple people may share in the negligence. Learn about the legal options for your drunk driving accident claim by speaking with a local car accident lawyer.