Can a Drunk Driver’s Passengers Sue the Driver for Injuries Sustained in an Accident?

Passengers of a drunk driver who are injured in a collision may have civil claims against the driver.

Driving under the influence (DUI) is a crime in every state. Convicted motorists may face a variety of consequences, including jail time, fines, and license suspension. And the standard DUI penalties are often more severe for offenses involving injury accidents—regardless of whether the injured party was a passenger in the drunk driver’s car, a passenger in another car, or a pedestrian. 

But in addition to the criminal penalties, a drunk driver might face civil consequences—being sued in court—when someone gets injured in a DUI accident. Anyone injured by a drunk driver—including a passenger in the drunk driver’s vehicle—can file a personal injury lawsuit against the driver.

This article discusses some useful information for passengers of a drunk driver who are injured in a DUI accident.

(Get more information about car-accident personal injury claims, and passenger injury claims in general.)

Negligence

Most personal injury claims against drunk drivers are based on "negligence." To win a negligence lawsuit, an injured passenger would generally need to prove four elements by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not):

  • that the drunk driver owed a “duty of care” to the passenger
  • that the driver breached the duty
  • that the passenger was injured or harmed in some way, and
  • that the drunk driver’s breach was a cause of the injury or harm.

Breaching the duty of care. “Duty of care” basically refers to the legal responsibility a person has to refrain from causing harm to others. But not all actions that cause harm are considered breaches of the duty of care: Generally, a breach occurs only where the defendant fails to exercise the level of caution that a reasonable person would under like circumstances.

Intoxicated driving may not always equate to a breach of the duty of care. For instance, a jury might be sympathetic to a motorist who inadvertently drives under the influence after taking a prescription medication. But in most instances, a driver’s impairment will certainly lend support to plaintiff’s negligence argument—especially if the driver got behind the while extremely drunk or high.

Injuries. A passenger must prove some sort of injury to recover on a negligence claim. And the award amount generally bears a relationship to the severity of the injuries. Common injuries include broken bones, lacerations, and head trauma. (Get more information on injuries and types of damages a person can recover.)

Causation. To prevail in a negligence suit, an injured passenger must also prove legal causation. In other words, there needs to be a direct link between the defendant’s drunk driving and the passenger’s injuries. In some cases, establishing causation is straightforward. For example, where a drunk driver is swerving back and forth before smashing into a wall—and a passenger suffers injuries in the collision—there’s little question about fault. However, in other cases, it’s not so clear. For instance, imagine a situation where a drunken motorist crashes into the back of another car because of sudden brake failure. In such a case, an injured passenger could have a hard time convincing a jury the driver’s intoxication was a cause of the injuries. (Read more about the causation element.)

Negligence Per Se

Some jurisdictions make it easier for plaintiffs to establish a negligence claim where the defendant’s allegedly negligent act was also a violation of the law. Generally, "negligence per se" laws eliminate the need to prove duty and breach in situations where the defendant injured the plaintiff in the course of violating a law that was designed to protect the public. DUI laws are, of course, in this category as their primary purpose is to safeguard the public from the dangers posed by drunk drivers.

(Our article on negligence per se discussed the elements of the claim in more detail.)  

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