Claims Against A Drunk Driver Drinking and driving can have serious legal consequences. Most people think of the criminal liability that can follow from an arrest for drunk driving. The criminal aspects of such activity is certainly serious. However, civil liability can also result from an accident caused by drunk driving. When an individual is injured or killed by a drunk driver, the law imposed civil liability in the form of monetary damages. The types of claims that can arise from an injury caused by a drunk driver are outlined below.
Negligence Claims A negligence claim requires four things to be proven by the injured individual. First, there must be a legal duty. For most negligence claims based on drunk driving, the duty at issue is the duty to act with reasonable care while driving. Second, the identified legal duty must be breached, simply meaning not met or honored by the defendant. Again, in drunk driving cases the breach will virtually always be driving while intoxicated itself. To do so breaches the duty of reasonable care, because it is dangerous in and of itself to drive while intoxicated. Third, there must be an injury to the individual bringing the suit. Injury is defined loosely, meaning physical injury (up to and including death) as well as damage to property. Finally—and generally most difficult to prove—is that the breach by defendant caused the injury to plaintiff. The actions of defendant must be the actual cause of plaintiff’s injuries, meaning that without that action the injuries would not have occurred. More difficult is the concept of “proximate cause.” Proximate cause means that the injury was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant and not caused by some superseding event. In a car accident, both proximate and actual cause are generally straightforward. The defendant’s drunken state caused the accident and it was foreseeable that driving while intoxicated could cause an accident and harm other drivers, pedestrians, or passengers.
Negligence claims can provide redress for a number of plaintiffs. The most common is certainly other drivers that are struck by a drunk driver. Pedestrians are also foreseeable plaintiffs that may bring claims against a drunk driver that causes them injury. Finally, passengers are foreseeable plaintiffs—whether in the defendant’s car or plaintiff’s car. One considerations for all plaintiffs, but particularly passengers, is comparative fault. A plaintiff’s actions that are not reasonable under the circumstances can reduce his or her recovery and even bar the claim completely if the plaintiff is more at fault than the defendant. For passengers, this can be particularly relevant when they choose to ride with a driver they know to be intoxicated. Because a reasonable person would not agree to the dangerous circumstances riding with a drunk driver poses, the jury may attribute great fault to a passenger that chooses to get into the car with an intoxicated driver.
Negligence Claims Based on Violations of Law A second type of negligence claim can provide liability for injuries caused by a drunk driver. These types of claims are known as negligence per se claims. For these types of claims, the defendant is shown to have violated a law, with that violation causing plaintiff’s injury. Every statute won’t work for every injury, however. Negligence per se requires that the harm suffered be the type the law meant to prevent and that the injury occurred to the type of individual the law meant to protect. In the context of drunk driving cases, most injuries easily satisfy these two requirements. Section 8-1567 makes driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs a crime. This law was passed to prevent injuries caused by drunk drivers and to protect other drivers, pedestrians, and passengers. Thus, showing a violation of Section 8-1567 can establish a negligence per se claim for a plaintiff that suffers injuries in a car accident caused by that defendant. One important distinct to note here: a claim for negligence per se directed at Section 8-1567 requires the defendant to be legally intoxicated with a BAC over 0.08. A normal negligence claim has no threshold of intoxication. Instead, the jury will simply determine if the defendant acted reasonably in choosing to drive after drinking. If it is determined that the decision was unreasonable, the defendant is liable—no matter how low his or her BAC was.
Punitive Damages Unlike most negligence actions, drunk driving accidents may be grounds for punitive damages. Punitive damages are unlike other damages, which compensate the plaintiff for his or her injuries. Instead, punitive damages punish a defendant for bad actions. In Gould v. Taco Bell, the Kansas Supreme Court held that punitive damages were appropriate in negligence actions when the defendant performs a wanton act. This act must be done with a realization of the imminence of danger and a reckless disregard to the consequences. Drunk driving is ripe for a finding of these circumstances and thus an award of punitive damages.
Liability of Bars and Liquor Stores In most states, liability can be imposed against the retailor that sells alcohol to a defendant that ultimately harms another in a drunk driving accident. These are called dram shop liability claims. Dram shop liability generally only attaches when the retailor—whether a bar or liquor store— “overserves” by selling to an individual that is clearly intoxicated. However, Kansas remains one of only seven states that does not impose liability by statute or court decision. Without dram shop liability, Kansas law provides no means of reaching a bartender that overserves, no matter how irresponsible or unreasonable the bartender’s actions are. This was precisely the case Noone v. Chalet of Wichita, LLC, but the court placed the obligation of imposing liability on the legislature. By contrast, Missouri and Colorado—states well known for promoting instate breweries—both impose dram shop liability via statute.
When an individual is hurt by a drunk driver, liability can attach in a number of ways. Contacting a capable lawyer is important to determine which avenue of recovery is best for each case. The sooner legal counsel is contacted, the sooner injuries can be compensated. Further, the nature of a drunk driving accident requires experienced legal counsel to ensure proper redress for injuries is received.