Hit by a Drunk Driver: What are My Legal Options?

A look at potential sources of compensation if you've been injured by a drunk driver.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than ten thousand people were killed in alcohol-related car accidents in 2010. Alcohol-related accidents comprise almost one-third of all car accidents in the country. In this article, we'll explain your legal options if you're involved in an accident with a drunk driver.

Drunk Driving: Criminal Cases vs. Civil "Damages"

A car accident caused by a drunk driver is different than other types of car accidents because drunk driving is against the law. If you are injured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, you have the right to pursue compensation from the driver, but keep in mind that your claim for compensation against the other driver takes the form of a civil case, rather than a criminal case. Even if the local district attorney or prosecutor has filed criminal charges against the driver, you will not receive compensation for your injuries via the criminal case.

When you file a civil case against the drunk driver, you are seeking a financial sum as compensation for your injuries. A civil claim is the only way you can recover compensation from the other driver. This type of compensation is called "damages," and it can take several forms.

"Special damages" are meant to reimburse you for such out-of-pocket expenses as medical expenses, lost income, and other economic losses.

"General damages" are intended to compensate you for the physical and mental pain and suffering, and other more subjective kinds of effects of the accident and your injuries. (More: Pain and Suffering in Car Accident Cases.)

In addition to these two categories of losses -- which together are known as "compensatory" damages -- under certain circumstances you may also be entitled to "punitive" damages. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the drunk driver for particularly reckless behavior and to discourage similar behavior in the future -- to "make an example" of the driver.

Be Careful When You're Talking Settlement

Following the car accident, the drunk driver's insurance company will likely contact you and will probably offer a certain amount of money in an effort to quickly resolve any claim you might have against the driver.

The insurance company for the driver wants to pay you as little as possible as quickly as possible. The insurance company will do this to avoid possible responsibility for your future medical expenses. It is important to understand that the driver's insurance company is not working for you, and the insurance company does not have your best interests at heart. Don't agree to settle your claim this close to the outset, and certainly don't sign anything at this point. Learn more about Negotiating a Car Accident Injury Claim.

"Dram Shop" Laws, "Social Host" Liability, and Other Laws

If you have been in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, the driver is not necessarily the only person who can be held liable for causing the accident. Depending on the laws of the particular state in which you live, you may also be able to sue other persons or businesses.

If your state has one on the books, "Dram Shop" laws allow an injured person to also bring a civil claim against the bar, restaurant, or other business that sold or served the alcohol to the drunk driver before the accident.

Your state may also allow you to bring a civil claim against a private host who may have provided alcohol to an underage or noticeably intoxicated guest. The purpose of these laws is to hold accountable those persons who continued to serve alcohol to an obviously drunk person.

In certain circumstances you may be able to bring a civil claim for "negligent entrustment" against a person or company other than the drunk driver. In a claim for negligent entrustment, a civil claim is made against the owner of the vehicle (if the drunk driver was driving a vehicle owned by another person or company). In that situation, if the owner of the vehicle knew or should have known that the driver was drunk, and gave him the car keys anyway, the car owner may also be liable to you for damages.

Additionally, if you were on the job when you experienced the car accident, you may be eligible to file a workers compensation claim. This type of claim is different than a civil claim against the drunk driver, and is filed through the workers compensation court or industrial court of your state.

Uninsured and Underinsured Drunk Drivers

One of the unfortunate aspects of many accidents caused by drunk drivers is that the driver either lacks a sufficient amount of car insurance coverage, or lacks insurance altogether. The possibility of bringing a Dram Shop claim against a bar, restaurant or club can be particularly important in this situation.

If the drunk driver does not have insurance, or has insufficient insurance, you may also be able to bring a claim against your own insurance company for compensation. Many automobile insurance policies include coverage that provides compensation to you in the event the driver who caused the accident has insufficient insurance coverage. This type of insurance coverage is called Uninsured Motorist or Underinsured Motorist insurance coverage. If your car insurance policy includes this type of coverage, it is your right to bring a claim against your insurance company for compensation. Check your policy and talk to your insurance company for details.

Because a variety of options may be available to you if you've been involved in a car accident with a drunk driver, it is wise to seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your state.

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