Drink + drive = inviting troubleMost people who want to get a driver’s license in the U.S. can get one, provided they are old enough to drive; can pass tests for knowledge, driving, and vision; are able to verify their citizenship, Social Security number and where they live; and have the money to pay the licensing fee. Once they are licensed to drive in their state, it is generally assumed that they are qualified and competent to operate a vehicle.

But there is no test for the likelihood that the driver will engage in intentional misconduct, such as alcohol consumption, and then get behind the wheel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10,228 people were killed in alcohol-related car accidents in 2010, nearly one-third of all traffic-related fatalities in the U.S. that year. Each day, nearly 30 people in the U.S. die in accidents that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. People most at risk of being involved in an alcohol-related crash: drivers between 21 and 24 years of age, motorcyclists ages 40-44, and drivers with prior DUI convictions.

How Alcohol Affects an Auto Accident Claim

Fault is a major concern in a personal injury case, but there is rarely a question of fault when the driver who caused the accident engaged in intentional or reckless conduct like drunk driving. Even in no-fault states, there are often exceptions to allow lawsuits against a drunk driver.

Because of the existence of field sobriety tests, breathalyzers, and other types of blood tests, the amount of alcohol in a driver’s system can be accurately confirmed, and drunk drivers are frequently held liable for their actions, both in civil and criminal court.

Alcohol and Liability

Civil liability related to drunk driving usually includes injury or damage to another person or property. In some states, dram shop laws assign civil liability for a drunk driver’s actions onto bars and restaurants that knowingly serve alcohol to intoxicated individuals and then allow them to drive, as can also be the case with social hosts who provide alcohol to guests in their homes and then allow them to drive afterwards.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have some sort of dram shop law on their books. States without dram shop laws include Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Virginia.

Drunk drivers often face criminal charges, including DUI, assault, battery, and if a fatality occurs, vehicular homicide. These charges can result in loss of driving privileges, imprisonment, and thousands of dollars in fines and court fees. A drunk driving conviction often means loss of one’s driver’s license for the specific amount of time and trouble obtaining affordable automobile insurance afterwards. Felony drunk driving convictions can also be a bar to certain types of employment and educational opportunities, including law school or a career in law enforcement.

Adults who provide alcohol to minors or allow minors to drink in their homes can be held to the same degree of liability as the minors themselves, and some states have laws that make homeowners liable if a minor was drinking at their home, regardless of whether they were aware of the behavior or not.

Drunk Driving Cases Aren’t Typical Claims 

In many states, victims of drunk drivers are eligible for punitive damages in addition to the compensatory damages typically allowed in an auto accident claim. Personal injury cases involving a drunk driver differ from those that result from carelessness in two very important ways — drunk driving is against the law, and the crash was likely preventable.

Image by James Cridland.

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