The consequences of drunk driving accidents can be devastating for victims and their families. Depending on the circumstances, you might be entitled to more damages than in a normal car accident settlement as a result of being hit by a drunk driver.
Drunk driving accidents should not happen. There is no excuse—none—for someone getting drunk and then getting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, many people make the poor decision to drive drunk, and they often do so with devastating consequences. If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one, you should speak with a local car accident lawyer about your legal rights.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 28 people die every day in drunk driving accidents in the United States. This is a startling statistic. Far more drivers and passengers suffer non-fatal injuries, and many of these victims experience negative effects for the rest of their lives.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one in a collision caused by an impaired driver, a drunk driving accident lawyer can help you seek just compensation. Keep reading to learn more, then schedule a free consultation with a local attorney.
What are Your Legal Rights After a Drunk Driving Accident?
Victims and families of victims have the legal right to receive just compensation after drunk driving accidents. When a drunk driver causes an accident, the drunk driver is legally responsible, and his or her insurance company has to pay.
In many cases, drunk driving victims and families of victims will have other legal rights as well, making car accident settlements involving a drunk driver larger, on average, than other settlements with similar circumstances. For example, in many states, victims and families can hold bars, restaurants, and even social hosts legally responsible for serving individuals who are too drunk to drive. If a drunk driver is on the clock at the time he or she causes a crash, then the drunk driver’s employer could also be legally responsible.
Regardless of what company ultimately has to pay, you and your family have the same right to just compensation. In non-fatal drunk driving accident cases, victims can recover financial compensation for their:
- Medical bills
- Other out-of-pocket costs (i.e. repair bills, prescriptions, and vehicle and home modifications)
- Loss of income and benefits
- Loss of future earning capacity
- Pain, suffering, and emotional trauma
- Scarring and disfigurement
- Post-traumatic stress
- Loss of companionship, consortium, society, and enjoyment of life
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Fatal drunk driving accident cases, on the other hand are a little bit different. Here, there is more variation between states with regard to what constitutes “just compensation” for aggrieved family members. Generally speaking, the types of financial compensation that are available in fatal drunk driving accident cases include:
- Medical bills (for any treatment rendered prior to their loved one’s death)
- Compensation for their loved one’s pain and suffering prior to death
- Funeral, burial, and cremation costs
- Loss of their loved one’s future earnings
- Loss of inheritance
- Loss of companionship, consortium, services, society, and support
Again, each state’s laws are different, and you will need to work with a car accident attorney who knows the law in your state.
How Do You Seek Just Compensation for a Drunk Driving Accident?
In order to seek just compensation for a drunk driving accident, there are several steps you will need to take as soon as possible. While the statute of limitations for drunk driving accident claims is at least a couple of years in most states, it is extremely important that you not wait any longer than necessary. After a drunk driving accident, you should:
1. Seek Medical Treatment
If you’ve been injured in an accident, you need to see a doctor right away. Tell your doctor what happened, and explain your symptoms to the best of your ability. This will be important to your claim for financial compensation (in addition to being important for your health), and if you wait to seek treatment this could make it more difficult to prove how you got injured.
2. Gather Everything You Have about the Accident
Once you are stable, you should gather everything you have about the accident. This includes any information you were able to collect at the scene, any photos or videos you were able to take with your phone, and any records you have from your trip to the doctor’s office or the hospital. You should also sit down and take 15 minutes to write out everything you can remember from before and after the collision.
3. Contact a Local Lawyer for a Free Consultation
In order to collect just compensation, you will need experienced legal representation. You will also need a legal practitioner to conduct an investigation and gather any additional evidence that may be available. It costs nothing out-of-pocket to hire a lawyer, and an experienced lawyer can help make sure you don’t settle for less than you deserve.
If you are facing the consequences of someone else’s decision to get drunk and then get behind the wheel, you deserve justice. Under no circumstances is it acceptable or excusable to drink and drive. While serious and fatal drunk driving accidents have declined over the past few decades, these accidents are still far too common, and it only takes one mistake to change, or end, someone else’s life.
So, let’s say you’ve been injured or lost a loved one in a DUI accident. How do you obtain the justice you deserve? The best thing you can do is speak with an experienced auto accident lawyer. An experienced lawyer will be able to help prove your claim, hold the drunk driver (and potentially other parties) accountable, and pursue all available avenues for collecting a fair car accident settlement that will cover all your lost income, medical bills, and property damages.
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Drunk Driving is Negligent Driving
Under most states’ laws, there is no question that drunk driving is negligent driving. In fact, since driving under the influence of alcohol is against the law, it is classified as “negligence per se.”
Under the doctrine of negligence per se, a person is deemed negligent based upon his or her violation of a statute—in this case, DUI law. The doctrine specifically applies when:
- A person (i.e. a drunk driver) violates a state statute (i.e. California’s DUI law);
- The violation proximately causes injury or death of another person;
- The injury or death resulted from an occurrence the statute seeks to prevent (i.e. drunk driving); and,
- The statute was intended to protect the victim against the unlawful act (i.e. to protect motorists against the dangers of drunk driving).
If you end up hiring a lawyer, they will almost certainly use this law to pursue a claim on your behalf. Again, there is no excuse for drunk driving, and there are no exceptions that make drunk driving anything other than negligence under most state law.
Does a Drunk Driver’s Insurance Cover a DUI Accident?
In general, auto insurance does cover DUI accidents. In most states the law requires all drivers to carry liability insurance, and this insurance covers accidents caused by all forms of negligence. If the drunk driver who hit you or your loved one has insurance, you can file a claim under the driver’s policy.
If you have uninsured/underinsured motorist UIM) insurance, you can file a claim under your UIM policy as well. This insurance applies if either (i) the drunk driver does not have auto insurance as required by law, or (ii) your total losses exceed the drunk driver’s policy limit. Even though seeking UIM coverage involves dealing with your own insurance company, you still need to prove liability, and this means that you need an experienced attorney on your side.
Is It Worth Suing a Drunk Driver?
So, you can sue a drunk driver. But, is it worth it? In short, it depends. If a drunk driver isn’t paying for auto insurance, then the chances that he or she has enough financial resources to cover your losses are slim. But, if the drunk driver has sufficient assets, then filing a lawsuit may be an option. This will likely be a long and expensive process, so it’s worth weighing the time and legal fees against the potential for a jury award, as well as the risk you might lose the lawsuit and get nothing.
Multiple Parties Could Be Liable for Your (or Your Loved One’s) Drunk Driving Accident
When it comes to seeking financial compensation for a drunk driving accident, it is important to understand that filing an auto insurance claim (or potentially suing the drunk driver) isn’t your only option. In some cases, it will be possible to file claims against other parties as well.
How could another party be responsible for a DUI accident? In these cases, liability is based on California’s “dram shop” law. Unfortunately, the legislature amended this law several years ago in order to limit the circumstances in which drunk driving accident victims and families can pursue claims against third parties. But, it is still possible to file a claim in some cases; and, if you have a claim, you will definitely want to hire a California drunk driving accident lawyer to help you fully assert your legal rights.
1. A Bar or Club
Under California’s dram shop law, DUI accident victims and families can file a claim against any bar or club that, “sells, furnishes, gives or causes to be sold, furnished or given away any alcoholic beverage, and any other person who sells, or causes to be sold, any alcoholic beverage, to any obviously intoxicated minor where the furnishing, sale or giving of that beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained by that person.”
The key limitations under the amendments to this statute are that (i) it only apples when a bar or club serves a minor, and (ii) it only applies when the minor is “obviously intoxicated.” While this might seem (and can be) difficult to prove, surveillance camera footage, eyewitness testimony, and various other forms of evidence will be available in many cases.
2. A Restaurant
The same law that applies to many bars and clubs also applies to most restaurants. If a restaurant serves alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated” minor who subsequently causes an accident while driving under the influence of alcohol, the restaurant can be held liable.
3. The Host of a Private Party
In many states, drunk driving laws also establish liability for hosts of private parties (or “social hosts”) who serve underage drivers. Unlike the dram shop law, this law does not require evidence of obvious intoxication:
“[A drunk driving accident victim or family can pursue] a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, in which case . . . the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.”
4. A Teenage Drunk Driver’s Parents
The law that holds social hosts responsible also holds parents responsible when they provide alcohol to their own children. If a parent allows a teen to consume alcohol at home and then the teen gets behind the wheel, the parents can be held civilly liable in the event that the teen causes an accident while intoxicated.
A Criminal DUI Case Will Not Result in A Bigger Drunk Driving Accident Settlement
A common misconception people have about drunk driving accidents is that a criminal conviction will provide justice for their family. But, while knowing that the drunk driver got convicted of DUI might provide some amount of emotional closure, it will not result in an award of financial compensation.
This is due to the distinction between the civil and criminal justice systems in the US. When a driver gets arrested for DUI, this is a criminal charge. The driver will go to trial in criminal court; and, if found guilty, the driver will receive a criminal sentence.
But, seeking financial compensation for a drunk driving accident involves filing a civil claim. This is an entirely separate—and almost entirely unrelated—process. If you have a claim against a drunk driver (which you most likely do if you or a loved one has been injured in a DUI accident), you will need to file a civil claim in order to get a car accident settlement from a drunk driver.
How DUI Laws Affect Your Car Accident Settlement After a Drunk Driving Accident
While a DUI conviction does not result in an award of financial compensation for accident victims or their loved ones, a conviction can be helpful when pursuing a civil claim. Under most states’ laws, a DUI conviction can be used as evidence that the driver violated the law. Under negligence per se, this can limit the steps involved in proving a drunk driving accident claim. Without a conviction, you would still need to prove on your own that the driver was drunk in order for negligence per se to apply.
When it comes to using a DUI conviction in a civil case, the burden of proof is relevant as well. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means they must prove the defendant’s guilt with somewhere around 99% certainty. But, in a civil case, all that is required is proof by “a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that it simply must be more likely than not, or 51% certain that the drunk driver caused the accident. Since the criminal burden of proof is greater, this allows an attorney to use a conviction as evidence that the driver violated DUI laws in a civil claim for financial compensation.
What if the drunk driver isn’t convicted of DUI? Since the driver’s criminal case and your (or your family’s) civil case are separate, this does not impact your (or your family’s) ability to pursue a civil claim. While prosecutors may not have been able to prove the driver’s guilt with 99% certainly, you may still be able to prove with 51% certainty that the driver is liable.
Understanding Statute of Limitations for Drunk Driving Accident Cases
With a few exceptions, drunk driving accident claims are usually subject to a two-year statute of limitations. This means that accident victims and families have up to two years from the date of the accident to file a claim, and not a day longer. Once the statute of limitations expires, you will lose your rights—even if you would otherwise clearly be entitled to financial compensation because a reckless driver was drunk behind the wheel.
While there are some exceptions to statute of limitations, these exceptions won’t apply to most drunk driving accident cases. For example, one exception is the “discovery” rule, which extends the statute of limitations could not reasonably have discovered his or her injuries at the time of the accident. However, accident victims are expected to seek medical treatment promptly, and there won’t be an excuse for delaying medical treatment in most cases. In fact, delaying treatment any longer than necessary—even by a matter of days—could make it more difficult to help you collect compensation for the crash.
One exception to statute of limitations that will apply in some drunk driving accident cases is the exception for minors. For minors, the statute of limitations is “tolled” until they turn 18. So, if a child is injured in a drunk driving accident at age 12, for example, he or she would still be able to file a claim until he or she turns 20 (in most cases).
Regardless of how much time you have left to file, you should discuss your case with a lawyer. Any delays can be costly, and they can make it much more difficult to collect the financial compensation you deserve.
Are You Always Entitled to Punitive Damages in a Drunk Driving Accident?
In most cases, accident victims and families can seek “compensatory” damages for others’ negligence. This means that the damages awarded are intended to compensate for, or replace, what victims and families have lost (and will lose in the future). But, in DUI accident cases, you should be able to recover punitive damages as well.
In drunk driving accident cases, claims for punitive damages are typically based on the last part of this definition—despicable conduct with a willful and conscious disregard for the safety of others. Driving under the influence on the public roads will meet this definition in many cases; and, as a result, most good lawyers will often be able to use this definition to secure punitive damages for their clients.
4 Important Ways to Get a Fair Car Accident Settlement After a Drunk Driving Accident
In addition to the three basic steps we outlined above, there are some other important things that victims and family members need to do after serious and fatal drunk driving accidents. There are also some critical mistakes they need to avoid. Here are five important ways to protect your legal rights after a drunk driving accident:
- Don’t rely on the insurance companies for advice. Even if your insurance adjuster seems sympathetic to your situation, you should not rely on your adjuster for advice. Instead, you need to make your own informed decisions, with the advice of a qualified attorney if possible.
- Don’t post about the accident on social media. Posting about the accident can be tempting, but it can also be a costly mistake. The insurance companies can use anything you post against you, and they will do so in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
- Don’t assume all hope is lost. After a DUI accident, it is easy to feel like all hope is lost. But, it isn’t. You have clear legal rights and you can assert those rights, usually with the help of a car accident attorney.
- Don’t sign any documents. For the time being, you need to be very careful about signing any documents related to the accident. To be safe, you should not sign anything unless advised to do so by your lawyer.
Seeking Financial Compensation for a Fatal Drunk Driving Accident
If you have lost a loved one in a fatal drunk driving accident, you are facing an unimaginable situation. Your family has experienced a tragedy, and what the drunk drive did cannot be undone. Even if the drunk driver goes to prison, as he or she should, this does nothing to help your family cover the financial costs of the accident or cope with the day-to-day effects of living without your loved one in your lives.
To seek justice for your loved one’s death, you will need to hire a good personal injury attorney to pursue a wrongful death claim on your family’s behalf. These claims present some unique challenges, and they are subject to some unique rules and restrictions. As a result, it is important to hire an experienced attorney, and it is important that you do so as soon as possible.
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Yes, auto insurance covers drunk driving accidents. If the drunk driver has auto insurance, a local attorney can help you file a claim under his or her policy. This will involve proving that the other driver was drunk, proving the financial and non-financial costs of your injuries, and negotiating for a fair auto accident settlement on your behalf. If the drunk driver’s insurance company refuses to settle for just compensation, you will need an attorney to take your claim to court.
Attorneys generally charge the same fees for all types of auto accident claims. These are “contingency” fees, which means you only pay if you win. Most attorneys charge contingency fees in the range of 33 percent, though fees can range from 25 percent to 40 percent. Even taking these fees into account, you can probably still expect to take home more with an experienced attorney representing you, because the amount of compensation you’ll get for the car accident will be significantly higher with an attorney’s help than without, and this larger car accident settlement amount will often cover the entirety of the lawyer’s contingency fees, and more.
There is another instance when you’ll definitely want to enlist the help of an experienced auto accident attorney – if your case goes to trial. This is often a good idea when you’ve been the victim of a drunk driving accident for a couple of reasons:
- Punative damages in a car accident lawsuit can exponentially increase the amount of your payout. Punative damages are only available in jury trials, not in settlements negotiated directly with the insurance company. These are additional monetary fines ordered by the court as a way to punish a criminal, reckless, or negligent behavior, and as a deterrent for future offenders. Drunk driving would defintely fall into this category, along with speeding, road rage, drag racing, etc.
- Publicize the damage, and punishments, done by drunk driving. Drunk driving is one of the most pernicious and deadly crimes in our society today. By dragging this bad behavior out into the open, you can bring more attention to both the dangers, and the punishments, associated with driving under the influence. Hopefully with increased awareness and more caution will come less drunk driving accidents.
If you’re injured in an auto accident with a drunk driver who doesn’t have auto insurance, you may still have options available. For example, one option may be to seek coverage under your own insurance policy. If you have uninsured motorist (UM) coverage, now is the time to use it; and, if you have multiple vehicles in your household, you may be able to “stack” your coverage to seek additional car accident compensation.
Additonally, if you think the at fault driver has assets, you can always file a car accident lawsuit and sue them in court, since you can’t get a car accident settlement from their insurance company if they don’t have insurance. In addition to getting compensated for your injuries, lost income, and property damage (just like if you were collecting a car accident settlement), you can also sue for punitive damages. This is not an option in car accident settlements negotiated directly through insurance, and are often attached to drunk driving car accident cases. Punitive damages in a car accident lawsuit are additional monetary penalties levied on the at fualt driver as a way to both punish illegal and/or reckless driving behavior (such as driving drunk) and as a deterrent to scare other people from repeating that behavior in the future.