How Underage Drinking Affects a Car Accident Injury Claim

If a driver is under 21 and causes a DUI-related crash, some unique legal issues could be raised.

Underage drinking has long been an issue in the U.S. On the one hand, young adults and teenagers tend to be drawn to alcohol and the drinking "culture." On the other hand, because of their inexperience, young people are often not adequately aware of the risks and negative consequences that can come from alcohol consumption. The dangers are elevated when a minor consumes alcohol and then gets behind the wheel of a car. In this article, we'll discuss the ways that underage drinking could affect a car accident injury claim.

Underage Drinking and the Law

Each state has a minimum drinking age of 21, so anyone under the age of 21 who consumes alcohol is breaking the law. This is true regardless of whether than person then drives a car while intoxicated.

Even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal, the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States each year is consumed by young people between the ages of 12 and 20.

A number of states have passed laws that specifically apply to drinking and driving by people who are under the legal drinking age. Some of these laws set a lower blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than the standard .08, and others employ a "zero tolerance" rule where even a negligible amount of alcohol in the system is unlawful for a driver who is underage.

Does Underage Drinking Affect the Damages I Can Collect?

If you get into a DUI-related car accident involving an underage drinker, some of the legal issues are similar to those that arise out of any ordinary car accident. Basically, if you are injured as a result of another driver’s negligence, you may have a claim for damages, which means you can get compensation for losses stemming from the accident.

For example, following a car accident you may have significant medical expenses. You may also be unable to return to work for a period of time due to your injuries, and so you could end up dealing with a loss of income. In that instance, you would be able to collect Compensatory Damages for your losses, either from the at-fault driver or from his or her car insurance carrier. Compensatory Damages are meant to replace the out-of-pocket expenses you incurred as a result of the accident.

You may also be entitled to General Damages. Typically, this category of damages is intended to compensate you for your physical and mental pain and suffering. (Learn more about pain and suffering in a car accident case.)

If the driver who caused your car accident was involved in underage drinking at the time, you may also be entitled to Punitive Damages. This category of damages is not usually awarded in a car accident involving ordinary negligence, such as mere inattentive driving. However, the laws in many states consider car accidents involving alcohol to be instances of gross negligence, which is much more egregious under the law than mere negligence. Because of that, Punitive Damages may be awarded against an underage drinker to punish that person and to deter similar bad behavior in the future.

Does Underage Drinking Affect Liability for the Accident?

One of the unique aspects of a case involving a car accident where underage drinking is involved is that the variety of people or entities that might have legal liability for your injuries.

In a situation involving ordinary negligence caused by another driver, you can usually only sue the other driver for damages. However, this is not always the case where underage drinking is involved.

By definition, underage drinking is a violation of the law. A minor cannot legally purchase alcohol in any state. So, if the minor has been drinking, quite often someone else also broke the law by providing that alcohol to the minor. And, those persons or entities might also be legally liable for your injuries if the underage person ended up getting behind the wheel of a car and causing an accident.

For example, if the driver that caused the car accident was an underage college student who just came from a fraternity or sorority party, that fraternity or sorority might be responsible for your injuries. If the minor used a fake I.D. to buy alcohol at a store, that store might be legally liable to you and could have to pay damages.

Similarly, many states have laws prohibiting parents from allowing any underage drinking of any type in their homes. So, if the underage driver came from someone’s home after consuming alcohol there, the parents or owners of the home might also be responsible for your injuries, and they could be on the legal hook for damages. Learn more about Alcohol and Car Accidents.

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