Suing Drunk Drivers in Civil Court

drinking and driving

The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Drunk Driving Cases

Criminal Case

In California, it’s a misdemeanor to drive a vehicle when a person is “under the influence” of alcohol. The driver can face a variety of penalties including restitution, fines, community service, jail time, loss of driving privileges, suspension of driver’s license, installation of interlock device and attending classes This describes a typical criminal case. The purpose of the criminal process is to deter future drunk driving and protect the public by making the punishment so severe that the individual never wants to drive drunk again in their life.

Civil Case

A civil case for drunk driving is a completely separate process from the criminal case. If the drunk driver was in an accident and the accident caused harm to to you, you can can sue the drunk driver in a civil case.

The Process of a Drunk Driving Civil Case in California

drinking-drivingIf you live in a pure negligence state such as California, you are generally free to sue a drunk driver for the injuries you sustained. A drunk driving accident attorney must simply prove the fault of the other driver. Civil suits against drunk drivers seem like they would be easy to win. But unfortunately, winning drunk driving civil cases is never as easy as it should be. The victim of a drunk driver, otherwise known as a Plaintiff (or their family in the case of a fatality), files a lawsuit based upon negligence or wrongful death in the county in which the accident occurred against the drunk driver (the Defendant). If the driver of the vehicle was arrested for driving under the influence, then he/she is considered to be negligent per se. California Evidence Code § 669 codifies the common law doctrine of negligence per se as follows:

  1. You violated a statute, ordinance, or regulation of a public entity; in this case, it would be the vehicle code.
  2. The violation of that statute proximately caused death or injury to person or property, in this case, if a civil suit is filed it is likely because this element has been satisfied.
  3. The death or injury resulted from an occurrence of the nature which the statute, ordinance, or regulation was designed to prevent. In this case, if a civil suit is filed it is likely because this element has been satisfied.

These are the elements of traditional negligence, which are similar to negligence per se: Duty: the plaintiff would state that the driver owed a duty of care to avoid driving with illegal amounts of alcohol in his/her system. In the state of California, this amount is .08%. Driving below this amount is not illegal per se. Breach: the plaintiff would argue that this duty was breached when, the Defendant drove with over .08% alcohol in his/her system. Causation: the plaintiff would argue that driving while intoxicated was the actual and proximate cause of damages suffered, such as injuries or death of a loved one, emotional distress, wage loss and vehicle damage. Damages: the plaintiff articulates the damages listed above.

California Drunk Driving Civil Suit Outcomes

In 1979, the California Supreme Court extended punitive damages to drunk drivers. In 1982, the Court further held that an award of punitive damages in such circumstances was uninsurable, which means that the intoxicated individual who hit you will have to pay from his own pocket. However, the Court noted that an insurance company may be obligated to pay the compensatory damages portion of the award, meaning that which they would normally have to pay within the policy limits. In order to justify an award of punitive damages the plaintiff must prove that the “defendant was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he willfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.” Drunk driving is a very serious crime with severe consequences in criminal court as noted above. This can be compounded by a civil lawsuit whereby the drunk driver is held liable for sometimes huge monetary sums. For example, a Sacramento jury awarded 3.2 million dollars to a woman hit by a drunk driver.

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