Drunk driving is a crime, so anyone caught driving under the influence (DUI) faces criminal consequence—fines, jail time, and license suspension are some of the more common examples. But is a drunk driver who causes a collision automatically on the hook to pay for the other driver's damages? Not necessarily. However, a driver's intoxication generally increases the likelihood that the driver will be found responsible for an auto accident.
This article gives an overview of car accident claims and how a driver's impairment might come into play.
In many car-accident cases, the pivotal issue is fault. (Assuming you aren't in a no-fault insurance state.) Fault is what determines who—or whose insurance company—is financially responsible for any damage or personal injuries resulting from a car crash.
For purposes of legal responsibility, fault can be broken up into three parts:
Duty of care. The first part of proving fault involves establishing that one party owed a "duty of care" to another. Generally, everyone has a duty to take reasonable measures to avoid causing harm to others and the property of others. And in the context of driving, this duty translates to an obligation to operate the vehicle with reasonable care at all times. (Learn more about the duty of care.)
Breach. The "breach" component of fault is simple: A person breaches the duty of care by failing to act as a reasonable person would under like circumstances. In a car accident case, the injured party needs to identify what the other driver did—or failed to do—that was careless or unreasonable.
Causation. To establish the "causation" element, the plaintiff must prove a direct link between the defendant's breach of care and the damage or injuries. (For a more in-depth discussion, see our article on causation.)
For a plaintiff, showing the other driver was drunk isn't itself enough to win a lawsuit. But in many cases, establishing the defendant's intoxication will at least suffice to prove the first two parts of fault—duty and breach. After all, the plaintiff will have a compelling argument that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care by driving drunk. And in jurisdictions with "negligence per se" laws, proving the defendant violated the state's DUI laws will automatically satisfy duty and breach.
With causation, however, a driver's drunkenness may or may not be a decisive factor. For instance, in a rear-end collision, the driver in back is almost always at fault—that the driver in front may have been intoxicated would generally be irrelevant. But in other situations—like when an impaired driver hits another car while driving the wrong direction down a one-way road—the defendant's impairment might be obviously to blame. And in cases where a jury is having trouble deciding who caused the accident, the fact that the defendant was drunk or on drugs just might clinch it for the plaintiff.
Of course, every case is different. So if you've been involved in an accident with a drunk driver, it's always best to get in contact with a lawyer who handles auto-accident cases. A qualified attorney can explain your rights and help you decide how best to proceed with your case.