When you’re involved in a traffic accident, it is always a scary and stressful time. Hopefully, you can walk away with no injuries and minor property damage. Some victims are not so lucky – especially if they are hit by an irresponsible drunk driver. Here are some things you can expect if you have been involved in an accident with a drunk driver.
According to the CDC, in 2015 (the latest year statistics were made available), 10,265 people died in alcohol-related accidents – nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the country. Nearly 1.1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence. With drinking and driving being so common, it is important to know your options if you are struck by a drunk driver.
Civil versus Criminal
If the driver is cited and arrested for drunk driving after your accident, there will likely be two distinct tracks for the case – one civil and one criminal. The criminal case will be the state’s case if they choose to prosecute the driver. A DUI prosecutor will be assigned to the case and will decide if they want to dismiss the case, work out a plea deal, or proceed to trial. The criminal case will ensure that ‘justice’ is done, and punish the driver for his irresponsibility. However, you will likely not receive any financial compensation for his actions, unless the judge orders restitution as part of the criminal sentence. Even if restitution is ordered, the amount is typically small, and you must file a civil case against the driver to get fully compensated.
Civil lawsuits can request compensation for damages like medical treatment, property damages, pain and suffering, and lost wages. If the accident resulted in a fatality, then family members can sue the drunk driver for wrongful death. In the event the criminal suit results in a conviction for that driver, then the victim will have a stronger chance of prevailing in his or her civil suit. That is because the burden of proof in a criminal case is higher: it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. A civil suit merely must show the driver was drunk by a preponderance of evidence – meaning it is more likely than not.
The bifurcation in cases can often cause difficulties in delay. Under the Fifth Amendment privilege, a driver who has been accused of DUI cannot be compelled to testify in a case that might result in his self-incrimination – including a civil lawsuit. Most defendants will refuse to testify at a civil hearing because of their fear that what they say will affect their criminal suit. It can be difficult to wait until the criminal lawsuit is over, however – civil lawsuits have a statute of limitations, and evidence diminishes as time goes on. Civil suits should not be held hostage by the state’s prosecution timeline.
Getting a smart personal injury lawyer on your side if this happens can be crucial to a successful lawsuit without having to delay. Lawyers should communicate with law enforcement, the DUI driver’s insurance company, the client’s treating doctors, family members, other witnesses and friends to build a case. The goal should be to prove that the driver was drunk and drove home without having to resort to the defendant’s own testimony as proof.
Drunk driving accidents can often involve other people than the victim and the driver. First, if the driver was insured, then the insurance company will be sued alongside the driver. If the driver was not insured, then there are other avenues to take to ensure full compensation is awarded. For example, in some states, the bar or restaurant can be held liable for continuing to serve the driver alcohol if he should have been cut off. This is called the “dram shop” law, but it may not available in your jurisdiction, so it is important to consult with an experienced DUI attorney.
Similarly, some states have also allowed civil claims to be brought against private third-party individuals who provided alcohol to an underage or obviously intoxicated guest.
In rare cases, the car manufacturer can be found to be partially at fault if the car was not ‘crashworthy.’ Even if the initial cause of the accident was the drunk driver, if the car’s safety features worked improperly, then the manufacturer of the vehicle could also be liable for compensation of the victim.
Sometimes, dangerous conditions on the road might have contributed to the accident itself. If the roads were dark, poorly light, or had inadequate signage before a construction site, this could have been a cause of the accident, even if the driver was shown to have been under the influence.
Finally, your insurer might be involved if the driver has no insurance or inadequate insurance. If you have coverage for uninsured motorists, then you can make a claim against your own insurance to cover any excess not covered by the DUI driver. This protection must be in place before the accident occurs. Because there are so many potential liable parties, it is smart to find an experienced accident or personal injury attorney who can represent you as soon as possible after the accident.
Most cases will hold the driver responsible for compensatory damages to the victim, ensuring they are reimbursed for lost wages, medical expenses and property damage. They are also liable for less tangible expenses such as pain and suffering or disfigurement. In some egregious cases, the driver might be required to pay punitive damages, too. Punitive damages serve as a deterrent to the driver and others, demonstrating that their behavior was something that will not be tolerated by society.