Does DUI Equal Automatic Fault for a Car Accident?

In most car accident scenarios, a DUI driver will be liable, but it's a little more complicated than you might think.

In 2010, an estimated four million adults in the country were reported to have driven while drunk. Those same statistics show that intoxicated drivers are more likely to be involved in a car accident than drivers who are not intoxicated. Additionally, they are more likely to be involved in more serious accidents. This is because car accidents involving intoxicated drivers often involve cars traveling at excessive speeds.

When a driver receives a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or a DWI (Driving While Impaired), it indicates that he has been convicted of the crime of driving a car with blood alcohol levels in excess of the legal limit. While a driver convicted of a DUI/DWI might also have been involved in a car accident, the fact that the driver received a DUI/DWI does not necessarily mean in the eyes of the law that the driver caused the car accident. Read on to learn more.

What is Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)?

In recent decades, states have enacted laws that treat drunk driving differently than accidents where a driver is merely negligent. The most well known type of law is where the states have established maximum intoxication levels to operate a car. This type of law is known as the maximum Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). The BAC represents the percentage of alcohol in the blood. Every state in the country has established a permissible BAC, and almost all of those states have limits of 0.08%.

The purpose of a BAC is to define intoxication and to provide a rough estimation of impairment. In most states, if your BAC is at or above the minimum permitted level, there is a presumption of intoxication. Additionally, in many states if a driver’s BAC is at or above the minimum level, there is a presumption of negligence if the driver is involved in a car accident. This is because scientific studies have shown that alcohol impairment leads to slowed reaction times, impaired depth perception, and an inability to process multiple events while driving.

However, under the laws of most states this is just a presumption, and it can be overcome by evidence of other factors. It is also important to note in some states that a driver can be impaired even if the driver doesn’t meet the permitted BAC level. This is because a person’s impairment is affected by such factors as weight, height, gender and age.

How is Fault for the Accident Determined?

Following the accident, the investigating law enforcement officer will usually write a report summarizing the findings of the investigation. While the officer might express an opinion in the report on the question of who is at fault for the accident, most states consider the officer’s statement just that -- an opinion. The laws in most states indicate that only a judge or jury may ultimately determine who is at fault for a car accident.

To reach that determination by a court, the injured party must bring a civil claim against the intoxicated driver for personal injury. Most states require the injured person to prove four elements in a personal injury case:

  • Duty – All drivers owe other drivers the duty to drive in a safe manner and obey all traffic laws;
  • Breach of Duty – The injured person must show that the other driver failed to obey the traffic laws;
  • Causation – The injured person must show that the other driver's failure to obey the traffic laws caused the car accident; and
  • Injury – The claimant must show that injuries resulted.

If the claimant fails to show any of the four elements listed above, the person cannot receive damages. This is true even if the other driver was intoxicated.

So, even though Driver 1 may have been intoxicated, Driver 2 may still have caused the accident. For example, maybe Driver 2 ran a red light or a stop sign. Perhaps Driver 2 was driving recklessly. Driver 2 might have been speeding. In those situations, the car accident still might have occurred even though Driver 1 was intoxicated. If this is the case, then Driver 1’s intoxication might not have caused the car accident. If Driver 2’s negligence caused the car accident, most states will limit or prohibit altogether the amount of the damages that person can collect.

If a driver was intoxicated while driving, it does not necessarily mean that the injured person will automatically win the case against the intoxicated driver. However, it does mean that the injured person has a fairly good case to pursue.

Will Car Insurance Cover Any Damages Owed to an Injured Person?

Any driver who operates a vehicle while intoxicated is also vulnerable to a claim for punitive damages. In addition to the compensatory damages for medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering, etc., punitive damages are designed to punish the intoxicated driver and to make an example of the driver. While most automobile insurance policies provide coverage for compensatory damages, most do not provide coverage for punitive damages. So, if punitive damages are awarded in a lawsuit, paying those damages to the injured person could be the personal responsibility of the intoxicated driver if the driver’s insurance policy does not cover those damages.

Learn more about DUI Accidents and Car Insurance.

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