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Liability in Alcohol Related Auto Crashes

An intoxicated driver killed a preschool boy when she lost control of her vehicle and crashed into a South Side apartment complex.

Five other people, including the 23-year-old driver, were seriously injured in the crash. First responders and witnesses say that the car careened across a parking lot before penetrating the ground floor apartment; the driver apparently swerved to avoid an obstacle and was unable to regain control of her vehicle.

The boy, who was either 4 or 5, was responsive when first responders arrived, but he was buried under so much wreckage and rubble that he was too seriously injured for doctors to save him. In the rubble, investigators found a letter that the boy had written to Santa Claus asking for a new bicycle.

None of the names were released.

Alcohol-Related Crashes

Over the last twenty-five years, all states have lowered the legal limit from .10 to .08, and most states, including California, have passed much tougher DUI laws. Moreover, there are new technological tools, such as ignition interlock devices, and new tactical tools, such as roadside checkpoints.

Yet despite all these advances, alcohol is still a factor in about a third of the fatal motor vehicle crashes in California. Suburban and semi-rural areas tend to have even higher fatality proportions than urban areas, partly because of the lack of medical care in some of these areas and partly because there are more drivers on the road.

However, as the above story illustrates, anyone can be a DUI crash victim. If first responders had freed the victim earlier, doctors may have been able to save him. However, it appears that emergency crews arrived straightaway, as they nearly always do, and the crash was simply too bad for them to reach the victim in time.

The severity of the damage might raise a presumption in favor of punitive damages, a point that is discussed below.

First Party Liability

In criminal DUI cases, prosecutors must establish intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt. But in civil alcohol-related crash cases, victims must only prove impairment by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). Because of the lower evidentiary threshold and the lower standard of proof, it is much easier to establish liability in negligence cases than guilt in criminal cases.

In most cases, intoxication begins at three or four drinks. But impairment begins at one drink, in most instances. So, circumstantial consumption evidence is normally enough to establish impairment. Such evidence includes:

  • Erratic driving just before the crash,
  • An odor of alcohol emanating from the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) breath,
  • Bloodshot eyes, and
  • Unsteady balance.

The more evidence of intoxication there is, the stronger the victim’s case becomes, and therefore the more damages a jury is likely to award.

In circumstantial evidence cases, victims must establish five elements (legal duty, violation of duty, cause-in-fact, foreseeability, and damages). However, if the tortfeasor is arrested for DUI, as is often the case, the negligence per se (negligence “as such”) shortcut may apply, and the judge may declare that the tortfeasor was negligent as a matter of law. This rule applies if:

  • The tortfeasor violated a safety statute, like DUI, and
  • Said violation was a substantial factor in causing the damages.

Tortfeasors can rebut the presumption of negligence by introducing evidence that excuses their misconduct and/or shifts blame to the victims.

Victims in car crash cases are entitled to compensation for their economic losses, such as medical bills, and their noneconomic losses, such as emotional distress. In particularly bad cases, such as ones that involve a high BAC, many jurors will award additional punitive damages, to deter future misconduct and punish the tortfeasor.

In the above story, the tortfeasor may well have been extremely intoxicated, because she left the road, drove over a sidewalk, and crossed a parking lot before smashing into the apartment, so in a hypothetical lawsuit, punitive damages are definitely a possibility.

Third Party Liability in Alcohol-Related Crashes

California lawmakers recently changed the dram shop law, so alcohol providers are no longer liable for damages if the tortfeasors were over 21. Some lawmakers were concerned that the broad dram shop law, which previously held commercial and non-commercial providers liable under certain circumstances, diminished personal responsibility in car accident cases. The dram shop law still applied if the tortfeasor was under 21.

Providers may still be liable for damages under the negligent undertaking rule. Assume Harvey Host hides Tommy Tortfesor’s car keys because Tommy is intoxicated, but Tommy finds his keys, drives home, and collides with Peter Plaintiff.

Under these facts, Harvey may be liable for Peter’s damages. California is a modified joint and several liability state, so in most cases, the court proportionally divides damages if there are multiple tortfeasors.

For more information about your personal injury case, call Glotzer & Leib, LLP today.

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