DUI Accident Lawsuits: What Are Your Legal Options If You Get Hit By a Drunk Driver?

If you’ve been injured by a drunk driver, you have a right to sue the driver for compensation for your medical bills and other losses.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

According to the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 3 in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that impairs a driver's concentration, coordination, perception, and reaction time.

Drunk driving is a crime in every state. Even a small amount of alcohol can impair driving ability, but the risk of a crash increases exponentially when a driver's Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) reaches .08 or higher, which is the per se legal limit in most states.

If you have been harmed by a drunk driver, here's what you need to know:

  • You can sue the driver who hurt you in civil court for your damages, including medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.
  • Driving under the influence (DUI) is a crime. If the driver who hurt you is convicted of a DUI, you can ask for victim restitution.
  • You can take steps to protect yourself right after an alcohol-related crash and prepare for a car insurance claim or lawsuit.
  • An alcohol-impaired driver isn't automatically at fault for an accident. You'll have to show that the driver's impairment caused or contributed to the accident.
  • A lawyer can help you decide whether to settle or sue after a drunk driving accident.

What To Do Right After Getting Hit by a Drunk Driver

Getting hit by a drunk driver can change your life in an instant. One minute you're on your way to work and then suddenly you're hurt and having to deal with police officers, doctors, insurance adjusters, and lawyers.

In the moments following a drunk driving accident, you'll probably feel confused and angry. Try to remain as calm as you can and take the following steps to protect yourself and prepare for a potential car accident claim or lawsuit.

Call 911

Nothing is more important than your physical and mental health. If you or anyone else involved in the accident is injured, call 911 right away. You'll get the medical treatment you need and have documentation of your injuries and treatment-related expenses.

Call the Police

Call the police too. An officer will speak to everyone involved in the accident and write a police report. Calling the police is essential when you suspect that you've been hit by a drunk driver. A police officer can have the driver complete field sobriety tests and take a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test.

The officer's observations at the scene and the driver's BAC test results are key pieces of evidence you and the government can use against the driver in civil and criminal court.

Exchange Insurance and Contact Information

Ask the police to help you exchange contact and insurance information with the other driver. You'll want to get the driver's full name, driver's license number, license plate number, and car insurance details.

Document the Scene

After an accident, it's a good idea to get the names and numbers of people who witnessed the accident. You should also take pictures of the scene, including all vehicles involved in the accident, street signs, traffic signals, and lighting conditions.

But take care not to interfere with the police investigation. The scene of a DUI accident is the scene of a potentially serious crime. DUIs involving personal injury or death are typically charged as felonies and penalties include months or years in prison. You'll be able to use the information that an investigating officer gathers in your own insurance claim or lawsuit.

Talk to a Lawyer

DUI accidents are often serious and complex with criminal and civil consequences. If you're the victim of a drunk driver, you might think that you will easily win your civil case and that you don't need a lawyer. But a lawyer can help you figure out how much compensation you're entitled to and then help you get it.

Is a Drunk Driver Automatically at Fault for an Accident?

You might think that a drunk driver who is involved in a car accident is automatically at fault for the accident, but that isn't always the case.

To prove fault after a drunk driving accident, the person suing (the "plaintiff") typically needs to show:

  • the drunk driver (the "defendant") owed the plaintiff a duty of care
  • the defendant breached (violated) that duty, and
  • he plaintiff suffered harm ("damages") as a result of the defendant's breach of duty.

All drivers have a duty to operate their vehicles with reasonable care and driving while intoxicated is a breach of that duty. But what if the driver's intoxication isn't the cause of the accident? For example, what if you rear-end an intoxicated driver at a stop light? Or what if you run a red light and t-bone an intoxicated driver? In these examples, the drunk driver may not be at fault for the accident. The drunk driver would still face criminal penalties for a DUI, but might not be financially on the hook for your injuries and losses.

If you and the drunk driver share blame for the accident, your state's comparative fault rules will apply to your case. Your recovery may be reduced by your percentage of fault for the accident or barred altogether in a few states.

Learn more: Is a Drunk Driver Who's Involved in an Accident Automatically at Fault?

How Drunk Driving Accident Settlements Work

Before you race to the courthouse to file a lawsuit, you should try to reach a settlement with the drunk driver's insurance company. Every state requires drivers to carry a certain amount of insurance. If you file a third-party claim against a drunk driver's car insurance carrier, you might be able to negotiate a generous personal injury settlement.

You will have the upper hand during yoru negotiations with the drunk driver's insurance company. Insurers know that a jury is likely to side with you over the drunk driver and will be highly motivated to reach an agreement before the case reaches the courthouse.

People who are injured in DUI accidents can typically recover compensation for the following compensatory damages:

  • medical expenses (past and future)
  • lost income (past and future)
  • the cost to repair or replace damaged property
  • rental car reimbursement, and
  • pain and suffering (mental and physical).

Compensatory damages are meant to make the injured person whole again by compensating them for all accident-related losses. In nearly all states, some DUI victims might also be entitled to punitive damages, which are meant to punish drunk drivers for particularly bad behavior. But recovering punitive damages often means going to trial, because most car accident settlements don't include punitive damages.

Victim Restitution vs. Civil DUI Lawsuits

If you're injured by a drunk driver in an accident, you are the victim of a crime. The drunk driver will be arrested and prosecuted by the government. You will be an important witness for the prosecution, but the prosecuting attorney doesn't represent you.

If the drunk driver is convicted, the court will order the driver to pay victim restitution. The purpose of restitution is for offenders to repay victims for financial losses related to their crimes. Financial losses in a DUI crash typically include vehicle repairs, medical bills, and lost wages. In most cases, judges can't order restitution for non-economic losses like pain and suffering, though judges routinely order offenders to pay for the cost of a victim's counseling.

Offenders make restitution payments to a county or state agency and then the agency pays you. If an offender willfully fails to pay restitution, the offender can be sent to jail or prison for violating probation or parole.

Unlike a criminal prosecution, you decide whether to bring a civil claim against the drunk driver. You decide whether to hire a lawyer to represent you (see below for more on that) and which lawyer to hire. Your lawyer works for you to get you the maximum amount of compensation possible.

Civil damages include all of the economic damages that you can recover through a victim restitution order and non-economic damages like pain and suffering. In most states, you might even be able to get punitive damages if you go to trial and win.

You can pursue both victim restitution and a civil claim, but you're only entitled to be compensated once for your losses. For example, if you receive restitution for wages you lost when you had to miss work after a DUI accident, you can't recover those same lost wages again in a civil lawsuit.

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

Passengers typically have the same right to compensation as anyone else injured by a drunk driver. If your tipsy friend is driving you home from dinner and crashes into a tree, you can submit a claim to her insurance company and request restitution if she is criminally prosecuted. But the insurance company may raise questions about whether you share blame for your injuries. Did you know your friend had been drinking and choose to get in the car anyway? Did you have other transportation options? Were you wearing your seatbelt or behaving in a way that could have distracted the driver and contributed to the accident? If so, your compensation may be reduced or barred altogether in a few states.

Things are more complicated if your spouse or relative was driving the car. Most insurance policies cover the person named in the policy (the named insured). They also typically cover the named insured's spouse and other licensed drivers living in the household who are related to the named insured. So, if you are injured as a passenger in a car driven by a relative who is under the influence, you probably won't be able to file a liability claim against the driver because you're likely insured under the same policy. You can't file a liability claim against your own liability coverage.

Learn more about passenger injury claims after a car accident.

Can Family Members of People Hit by DUI Drivers Get Compensation?

The impact of a drunk driving accident can ripple far beyond the people directly involved in the accident. When someone is injured by a drunk driver, close family members of that person also suffer and might be entitled to compensation. For example, a spouse or partner of a person paralyzed by a drunk driver might be able to bring a loss of consortium claim against the drunk driver.

Every day, about 32 people in the United States die in drunk-driving accidents. In 2020, nearly 12,000 people died in drunk-driving crashes, according to the NHTSA. The family members of a person killed by a drunk driver can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the drunk driver. Wrongful death claims are similar to standard personal injury lawsuits and generally follow the same steps.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer?

If you're accused of a DUI in criminal court, especially a DUI causing injury, you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to represent you. You may also need a civil lawyer to represent you if get civilly sued over the accident. Learn more about what to do if you're facing an injury lawsuit after a DUI-related car accident.

If you've been injured in a DUI crash, you aren't required to hire a lawyer. You can represent yourself in negotiations with insurance adjusters and in civil court. But a lawyer can help you get the best possible outcome in your case and minimize the stress and hassle of navigating the criminal and civil legal systems during a difficult time in your life.

Most car accident attorneys offer free consultations and work on a contingency fee basis. Contingency fees are a common fee arrangement in personal injury cases. In most cases, a lawyer's contingency fee is 33% (one-third) of your settlement or court award. But you pay no lawyer fees if you lose your case.

Your Next Steps

If you or someone you love has been hurt by an impaired driver, you'll need to know how criminal and civil courts work. Here are some resources for victims of crime that will help you understand victims' rights and options.

You may also want to reach out to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Victim Services. A MADD victim advocate can help provide emotional support and information about criminal and civil courts. Call 1-877-MADD-HELP (1-877-623-3435).

Finally, talk to a car accident lawyer. A car accident lawyer can talk you through the pros and cons of filing a personal injury lawsuit. Learn more about hiring a car accident lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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