Civil and Criminal Consequences of a DUI-Related Car Accident

A look at potential criminal charges and lawsuit liability if you're convicted of DUI in connection with an accident.

If you get into a car accident and you are charged with driving under the influence (DUI), also known in some states as DWI (driving while intoxicated), you can expect to face serious civil and criminal consequences, especially if other drivers or passengers are injured.

Criminal Consequences of a DUI-Related Car Accident

The first significant consequence of a DUI-related car accident is the DUI charge.

In almost every state, a first DUI conviction will lead to loss of your driver's license for many months, a stiff fine, and maybe even driver education school or substance abuse counseling.

Then, once you get your license back, you may find that your car insurance company has canceled your car insurance policy. When you are quoted another policy, you are probably going to find that your premium has doubled, tripled, or worse. Automobile insurers don’t like insuring convicted drunk drivers. They see drunk drivers as a serious risk to their bottom line. Learn more about How Getting a DUI Affects Car Insurance.

But a DUI charge might only be the least serious of someone’s criminal worries in a DUI-related car accident. Depending on the circumstances of the car accident, the drunk driver might be charged with reckless driving, driving to endanger, assault, or, in a worst-case scenario, negligent homicide. If a drunk driver hits another person or vehicle and causes an injury, the police are definitely going to look at filing additional criminal charges against the drunk driver.

The criminal consequences of a second or third DUI conviction are much worse, and they likely involve jail time. A person with multiple DUI convictions will usually at least face losing their license for several years, if not permanently.

Consequences of Refusing the Breathalyzer Test

Some people think that they can avoid a DUI conviction by refusing the Breathalyzer test. This is a myth.

In most states, refusal to take a Breathalyzer test results in automatic loss of license for three to six months or more, and it doesn’t in any way stop the police from filing DUI charges against you. The police can still charge you with DUI based on their observations of your speech, manner, gait, and appearance, as well as the way that you perform the tests for intoxication and the manner in which you were driving before you were stopped. If the police think that you look intoxicated, they will charge you with DUI, regardless of whether you take the breath test or not.

What are the Standards for Intoxication?

In every state, a driver will be considered intoxicated if his/her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is more than 0.08%. However, the BAC limit is much lower for commercial drivers and for minors.

For commercial drivers, the maximum BAC limit is 0.04%. For those under 21, the limit is only 0.02%. That is one or two beers at the most, depending on how quickly you drink them.

Civil Consequences of a DUI-Related Car Accident

The civil consequences of a DUI-related car accident do not involve jail time, but they can still be quite serious. First, as stated above, someone convicted of DUI is going to face a serious increase in his/her car insurance premium and is going to have his/her driver’s license suspended or revoked for a significant amount of time.

Second, a drunk driver who hits another person or vehicle has almost no chance of winning a civil lawsuit that the injured person brings against him/her. If a drunk driver hits someone else, that driver’s car insurance company is going to settle the case if at all possible, and for more money than it otherwise would have settled for if the negligent driver hadn’t been drunk.

If the drunk driver seriously injured someone, the injured person’s claim might be worth more than the drunk driver’s insurance coverage. In that case, the drunk driver is going to have pay out of his/her own pocket, if he/she has the money, to settle the case. Let’s look at an example of this.

Let’s say that a drunk driver seriously injures someone in an accident. Let’s say that the injured person’s claim is worth around $500,000, but the drunk driver only has $100,000 of insurance coverage. The drunk driver’s insurer will offer its policy limits to settle the case, but the injured person is unlikely to accept that amount if he/she thinks that the drunk driver has assets. The injured person might be able to get some settlement money from the injured person’s own underinsurance coverage, if he/she has such coverage, but the injured person is also going to look to the drunk driver to pay something.

The injured person’s lawyer will do an asset check on the drunk driver, and, if it turns out that the drunk driver can afford to contribute money toward a settlement or verdict, the injured person’s lawyer is not going to let the drunk driver off the hook. If the drunk driver refuses to contribute to a settlement, the injured person might take the case to trial. If the injured person wins (which he/she will), and the verdict exceeds the drunk driver’s insurance coverage (which it will), now the drunk driver is really going to feel it in the pocketbook. Learn more about Facing a Lawsuit After a DUI-Related Car Accident.

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