Drunk Driver Accidents – An Overview
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 17,500 people die each year in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. Thousands more are injured and the costs for these accidents is staggering – over $100 billion in monetary and quality of life losses. If you or a loved one has been injured in a drunk driving accident, contact an attorney in your area today. An experienced personal injury lawyer can review your case and discuss your legal options with you.
Civil Actions for Drunk Driving Accidents
People who drive drunk and cause an accident face both criminal and civil charges for their actions, in addition to any actions by the state’s transportation department to revoke or limit their driving privileges. Criminal penalties can include fines, jail time, court-mandated treatment programs and incarceration, depending on the severity of the offense.
Those who were harmed by the drunk driver’s acts also can sue him or her to recover for their losses. These losses can include medical bills, property damage and lost wages, among others. Those who can bring a civil action include anyone directly harmed by the driver, such as pedestrians, other motorists and passengers. If the accident resulted in a fatality, the family and/or estate of the deceased may bring a wrongful death suit.
Actions against drunk drivers are usually negligence actions. Drivers owe a duty of care to their passengers and other motorists to operate their vehicles safely. Intoxicated drivers are held to this same standard. If a drunk driver breaches his or her duty and injures another person or damages property, the driver can be held liable for his or her actions.
Claims Against Third Parties
In some cases, the victim of a drunk driving accident or his or her family may name third-parties in a lawsuit. These third-parties can include the business that sold the alcohol to the driver, such as a bar, tavern or restaurant. Many states have Dram Shop acts that allow innocent third-parties to sue alcohol vendors who provided alcohol to an intoxicated person who subsequently causes injury in a drunk driving accident. To recover under these laws, the vendor had to knowingly provide the alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. Visible signs of intoxication can include slurred speech, difficulty walking or controlling body movements. In states without Dram Shop acts, victims may be able to sue third parties under common law negligence principles or Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) statutes.
Other third parties that may be held liable for injuries caused by a drunk driver include:
- Passengers: if the passenger of the drunk driver aided and abetted the driver in becoming intoxicated, he or she may be liable
- Police officers: if the officer had an opportunity to prevent a drunk driver from driving and failed to act, he or she may be liable. This could include a situation where an officer pulled over a drunk driver, but did not arrest the driver, who later injured someone in a drunk driving accident.
- Employers: in some limited situations, an employer may be held liable for the acts of an intoxicated employee. In some cases, employers have been held liable because the court reasoned the employer is in a position to control consumption and distribution of alcohol at work-related events. However, unless a company car was involved or the accident occurred on the employer’s property or in furtherance of the employee’s work duties, many courts have rejected employer liability for injuries caused in an employee’s drunk driving accident.
Social Host Liability
Social host liability is a hotly contested area in many states. It can attach to barbeques, work parties, birthday parties and other social gatherings where a host provides guests with alcohol without charging a fee. To be a social host, the host cannot be licensed to sell liquor. Social hosts may be liable for injuries caused by a person they provided with alcohol under one of two theories:
- Negligence – in these types of actions, the court will ask whether a reasonable person under the same circumstances would foresee an unreasonable risk or likelihood of danger to others by providing the guest with alcohol. In situations where the guest was a minor or visibly intoxicated, the host may be found liable for creating a foreseeable risk of harm.
- Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Statutes – while these statutes are meant to apply mainly to commercial vendors, some states have liberally interpreted their ABC statutes to find social hosts liable for furnishing intoxicating beverages to high risk individuals. Not all states construe their ABC statutes so broadly and many have refused to apply them to social hosts.
Currently, the majority of jurisdictions do not impose liability on social hosts for the acts committed by intoxicated guests once they leave the social gathering.
The types of damages available in a civil drunk driving accident suit will vary depending on state law and the facts of the case. For example, in a dram shop action, damages for the death of a loved one are not available, but damages for loss of property, personal damage and loss of services may be.
In some cases, punitive damages may be awarded. These damages are awarded in addition to damages for actual losses. They are intended to punish the defendant and send a message to others not to engage in this type of behavior. In some states, actual malice on the part of the drunk driver must be shown before the plaintiff can seek for punitive damages. In other states, the actions of the drunk driver must have been so reckless as to show a conscious disregard for the safety of others. Punitive damage awards are normally upheld so long as the court finds they are reasonable.
Drunk driving accidents take a terrible toll on society – from the injuries and deaths of loved ones, to the costs of paying for the accidents. Those who engage in this type of behavior should be held legally responsible for their actions. Contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your area today to discuss your case.
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