Injuries caused by drunk driving are very frequently the subject of civil suits. While drunk drivers can face serious criminal charges, with penalties including restitution and jail time, they can also face civil liability if they are sued by their victims. If you or a loved one is injured or killed by a drunk driver, a civil suit may be your best path to recover damages for your losses. Read on to learn more about your options.
A civil suit for drunk driving is a separate -- and distinct -- process from any criminal proceedings a drunk driver may face. Criminal proceedings are designed to protect the public from future harm by acting as a deterrent to drunk driving, as well as to punish the drunk driver for acting in a reckless manner. A drunk driver can face criminal prosecution even if there is no accident or injury involved.
A civil case based on drunk driving comes in the form of an injury lawsuit filed by the victim of a drunk driver, or in the case of a fatality, filed by the victim's next of kin, to recover damages. If you are injured by a drunk driver, a civil suit could be your only recourse when attempting to recover the costs of medical treatment, lost wages, damaged property or other economic damages. Civil suits, depending upon the law of your jurisdiction, also may offer the opportunity to recover non-economic damages, i.e. money for pain and suffering.
No-fault laws have a direct effect on your ability to file a civil suit against a drunk driver. If you live in a no-fault state, it is likely that a threshold is in place barring suits for auto accidents unless injuries are of a certain statutory severity or your damages exceed a certain statutorily mandated dollar amount.
The effect of no-fault laws on civil suits against drunk driving is constantly debated in no-fault states. Unlike in pure negligence states, drunk drivers in no-fault states are not automatically subject to civil liability. Even though a drunk driver has clearly injured you through a negligent act, no-fault laws still require a threshold be met before a suit can go forward. If your damages are limited to property damage and/or minor injuries, you will be forced to file a claim with your own insurance company. Laws vary from state to state regarding exceptions or variations on this rule. Learn more about lawsuits in no-fault states.
If you live in a pure negligence state, you are generally free to sue a drunk driver for the injuries you sustained. In personal injury drunk driving suits, you must simply prove fault as you would in any other civil suit. On their face, civil suits against drunk drivers seem like slam dunks, but defense attorneys and insurance companies have spent significant amounts of time and money defending such cases, and winning is never as easy as it should be. All the common defenses to a negligence case are available, including comparative and contributory negligence.
If a loved one is killed by a drunk driver, you or another duly appointed personal representative my file a civil suit for wrongful death on behalf of the loved one's estate. A wrongful death suit is often a mechanism employed by family members to ensure that those surviving the deceased have some financial stability. Wrongful death suits are a variation on a standard personal injury negligence lawsuit, and generally follow the same road map. Both economic and non-economic damages are available, and some states may allow punitive damages as well. Punitive damages are arbitrary amounts awarded with the sole intent of punishing the drunk driver and deterring future drunk driving incidents.