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I Was Hit by a Drunk Driver: Who is Liable?

You were driving home after the night shift, when a swerving pickup truck blew through a red light and clipped your rear fender, causing a spin-out. Your car was badly 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 so clear who's liable when in an accident with a drunk driver. 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, even if the other party is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). Even then, both parties still could be partially at fault.

Determining who is liable for an accident when at least one of the parties is impaired really just comes down to the facts and what directly 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. However, 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:

  1. Duty: When you're on the road you have a duty to follow traffic rules, yield to known hazards, and generally respect the safety of others.
  2. Breach of Duty: Speeding, driving recklessly, and driving impaired constitute breaches of this duty.
  3. Cause in Fact: Would the motorist who was hit by a drunk driver still have suffered injuries if the other driver wasn't impaired? This element focuses on the actual causation of the injuries.
  4. 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.
  5. Damages: The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered damages, such as damage to their vehicle and/or bodily injuries.

If you were in an accident with a drunk driver and suffered damages, then it is safe to assume they breached their duty simply by the fact they were driving while impaired. But you still would need to connect the dots and prove that the impairment was the cause in fact, and that the impaired driver's condition and resulting negligence was the proximate cause of your damages.

Using the example above, if you collided with a drunk driver because you ran a red light, then you may not be able to prove that their intoxication was to blame, or that the drunk driver could have foreseen your own negligence in running the red light. Therefore, 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 and 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. However, 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 you also were at least partially at fault. This is referred to as comparative or contributory negligence. The majority of states use comparative negligence laws, which 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 the court to decide the amount of fault each party bears.

Hit by a Drunk Driver? Get an Attorney's Help

Car accidents can be quite traumatic, and they often result in serious injuries when drunk drivers are involved. But it's not always clear who's liable especially when multiple people may share in the negligence. Get help today by speaking with a local attorney specializing in car accident cases.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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