In all states, driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 is considered driving under the influence, which is a crime. Many factors can affect the number of drinks it takes a driver to get to this BAC, including the driver's weight, genetic makeup, and gender. Even if your BAC is lower than .08, you may be too inebriated to drive. Consuming alcohol can reduce a driver's reaction time to unexpected events and can cause a driver to drive erratically.
Those charged with drunk driving in criminal court and acquitted may be surprised to find themselves still liable in civil court to anybody they injured or killed while drunk driving. The criminal and civil justice systems are separate, and the standard of proof is more stringent in criminal than it is in civil court.
An individual may be civilly liable for a drunk driving accident even if they are not criminally guilty.
In criminal courts, the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt." Usually, by contrast, the burden of proof in a civil personal injury lawsuit is "preponderance of the evidence." This means the plaintiff must prove a fact and damages by showing that his or her version of events is more likely than not to be accurate. Accordingly, there may be enough evidence to hold a person civilly liable for causing an injury while drunk driving, even though there is not enough evidence to prove the same person caused the accident "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Some states permit a person hurt by a drunk driver to sue not only the drunk driver but also the bar or other entity that served the drunk driver alcoholic beverages in spite of the driver's visible or obvious intoxication. These laws are known as "dram shop liability" laws. These laws can be useful to plaintiffs because bars and other entities may have insurance policies that permit recovery even if the drunk driver is uninsured or underinsured and judgment-proof.
Damages in a Drunk Driving Case
In any car crash case, the types of damages available to the party not at fault may be both economic and noneconomic. Economic damages may include past and future wage loss, past and future medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, household services, and vocational rehabilitation. Noneconomic damages are those intangible damages that may vary from case to case, such as pain and suffering and loss of consortium.
Usually, plaintiffs invoke punitive damages in cases involving egregious wrongdoing by wealthy corporate defendants. However, in certain cases, a drunk driver who pled guilty or who was convicted of a DUI may have to pay punitive damages in a civil case. The purpose of punitive damages in such a case is to impose a penalty that is harsh enough to deter the driver from driving drunk again. For example, the surviving mother after a drunk driver kills her husband and their two daughters may sue for wrongful death and ask for punitive damages.
The US Supreme Court has suggested that a punitive damages award exceeding a single-digit ratio to the compensatory damages award would rarely be justified.
When the jury awards a very large sum in punitive damages, the defendant may argue that the award is unconstitutional. The court will consider whether the harm was physical or financial, whether the defendant's action showed a reckless indifference to others' health or safety, whether the target was financially vulnerable, whether the conduct involved repeated actions, and whether the harm involved intentional malice or deceit. For example, a large punitive damages award might not be considered appropriate against a defendant when sleepiness was a side effect of his prescription medication and the impaired driving charge was his first brush with the law. However, a large punitive damages award might be more appropriate in a drunk driving case where the drunk driver was a wealthy person with multiple DUI convictions who was driving without a license at the time of a fatal accident.