Alcohol and Car Accidents: Key Legal Issues

The presence of alcohol in a driver's blood can be the determining factor in proving fault.

The presence of alcohol in a driver’s blood can be a key legal issue in a car accident and any resulting insurance claim or car accident lawsuit. Despite the near omnipresent warnings regarding the dangers of drunk driving, some drivers still operate their motor vehicles while intoxicated. What follows are some key legal issues that may arise when an accident involving a drunk driver occurs, from both the civil and criminal law perspectives.

Alcohol and Civil Liability for Damages After a Car Accident

A drunk driver is nearly universally liable for any damage or injuries they cause while operating a vehicle under the influence. Even some no-fault states carve out exceptions and allow lawsuits over a car accident caused by a drunk driver. If you drive drunk and cause an accident, you will be held liable for your actions. Proving that an injuring driver was drunk at the time of the accident is usually relatively easy. Field sobriety tests, breathalyzers and hospital-administered blood tests are all used to confirm the amount of alcohol in a driver’s system at the time of the accident.

Civil claims can have a devastating effect on a driver, effectively destroying their ability to drive or obtain insurance, and the financial fallout is often insurmountable. Victims of drunk drivers rarely decline to file lawsuits, and liability in drunk driving cases can be very easy to prove.

Alcohol and Criminal Liability for a Car Accident Injury

In addition to the civil liability that could occur in any car accident involving an injury or damage to property, drunk drivers can -- and often do -- face criminal liability for their actions. Assault, battery, and (in the case of a fatality) homicide (i.e. vehicular manslaughter) are all charges that have been successfully brought against drunk drivers. Drunk driving in and of itself, even absent any injury or property damage, is a crime, and can result in imprisonment, the forfeiture of a driver’s vehicle, driver’s license penalties, and thousands of dollars in fees and fines.

Criminal liability doesn’t end with the drunk driver. Bars or restaurants that knowingly serve an intoxicated individual and then knowingly allow them to drive could be held liable for the drunk driver’s actions. So, too, could social hosts that provide alcohol for guests in their homes, and then knowingly allow a drunken guest to take to the roads.

Dram Shop Laws. Many states have laws that are collectively referred to as “dram shop laws,” which impute civil liability on bars and restaurants that over serve patrons and allow them to drive. Dram shop laws vary from state to state and have changed over time, and dram shop cases can be very contentious due to the potential ramifications for the bar owner, but the fact remains that one who serves alcohol for profit generally has a duty to guard against patrons driving drunk. Not every state has dram shop laws, and some states have criminal statutes relating to establishments that knowingly allow drunk drivers to hit the road.

In the case of minors drinking and driving, 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. Some states have even passed laws that impute liability on a homeowner if a minor was drinking at their home, regardless of whether the homeowner knew it was occurring.

Insurance Ramifications of Alcohol Use While Driving

Finally, a drunk driving conviction can have a dire effect on one’s ability to obtain auto insurance. Insurance companies often will not risk a potential lawsuit or a high-dollar claim if a driver has been convicted of operating while intoxicated, which has a deleterious effect on both the drunk driver and potential victims -- that's because if you are injured by an uninsured drunk driver, you may have no financial recourse when seeking recompense for your injuries.

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