Clearly drinking alcohol and operating a motor vehicle do not mix well. Almost one-third of fatal car crashes are the result of a driver who was impaired and legally intoxicated. It is illegal to drive a car with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. Half of all fatal auto crashes take place on weekends and are alcohol related. Statistics estimate that about three out of every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related accident at some point in their lives. In 2007, over 1.4 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. That figure is less than one percent of the 159 self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among U.S. adults each year.
But driving under the influence (DUI) is not limited to just alcohol-impaired drivers. It applies to drivers who are also impaired because they are under the influence of drugs. A person may have a zero BAC but still be arrested and charged with DUI if he or she is under the influence of a drug. The drug may be one that is prescribed by a doctor and filled by a pharmacist, or it may be an over-the-counter drug. Drugs other than alcohol (e.g., marijuana and cocaine) are involved in about 18 percent of motor vehicle accidents involving fatalities.
In addition to recovering the “standard” damages (things like medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and property damage) when one has been injured by a drunk driver, in some cases it is possible to recover “punitive” damages from the impaired driver. Punitive damages are designed to punish a driver for his or her intentional or “conscious disregard” of the law and safety of others and continues drinking even though the person knows he or she is intoxicated, knowing the he or she intends on driving afterwards. When such an intoxicated person gets behind the steering wheel of a car without any regard for the safety of other motorists on the roadway and causes an accident, punitive damages may be awarded to punish the intoxicated driver.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 13,000 people are killed and innumerable thousands of others are injured each year in automobile accidents involving alcohol. Out of all traffic fatalities, some 30 percent involved a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 or higher, the California (indeed, nationwide) standard for defining driving under the influence of alcohol. About three out of every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives. Although this article will deal with driving while intoxicated, a person who causes an accident may do so because he or she is under the influence of an illegal drug (e.g., marijuana or cocaine) or even a prescription drug that impairs his or her driving skills. For example, one study showed that smoking even a small amount of marijuana doubles the risk of getting into a fatal highway accident. And the risk of getting into an accident skyrockets when the driver combines alcohol with many prescription and over-the-counter medications.
The rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes is four times higher at night than during the day. In fatal crashes, the highest percentage of drivers with a BAC level of .08 or higher was for drivers ages 21-24 (33%), followed by ages 25-34 (29%) and 35-44 (25%). The BAC level of .08 is the point at which the fatal crash risk significantly increases and virtually everyone with that level of alcohol in their system is seriously impaired. At .08 BAC, all of the critical driving skills are affected: braking, steering, lane changing, judgment and response time. Drivers with BAC levels of .08 or higher involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) than were drivers with no alcohol. More than half of the drunk drivers involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of .15 or greater. Men make up the vast majority—over 80 percent—of all drivers involved in fatal crashes with a BAC of .08 or higher.
According to the Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Reports, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in the United States for persons under 24, and of those, more than 40% are alcohol related. For motor vehicle crashes in general, a person with a BAC of .08 is 11 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a person without alcohol in their system, while a person with a BAC of 0.10 is 48 times more likely to have an accident. A driver whose BAC is 0.15 is 380 times more likely to have an accident! As far as accidents involving deaths are concerned, a driver with a BAC of 0.10 or greater is seven times more likely to be involved in a fatal motor vehicle collision than is a driver who has not consumed alcoholic beverages. A driver with a BAC of 0.15 or greater is about 25 times more likely to get into a fatal accident than a non-drinker.
Note that a person need not have a BAC of .08 or higher for it to affect his or her judgment and driving skills. Even after “just a couple” of drinks, a person’s driving ability may be impaired, causing him or her to drive erratically, affect the reflexes such as the ability to respond to an emergency stop, or divert his or her attention from watching the road. A BAC of .02 causes a decline in some loss of judgment, a decline in visual functions, affecting the ability to track a moving object, and a decline in the ability to perform two tasks at the same time. A BAC of .05 results in significant impairment in eye movements, glare resistance, visual perception, reaction time (especially in emergency situations), certain types of steering tasks, information processing, and other aspects of psychomotor performance.
When someone drinking is near the level of intoxication (.08), studies show that he or she has poor muscle coordination, affecting their balance, speech, vision, reaction time and hearing. This makes it more difficult for them to detect danger and exhibit impaired judgment, self-control, and reasoning ability and memory. A driver with a BAC of .08 will have difficulty in concentration, ability to judge the speed of the vehicle, will experience reduced information processing capability, and demonstrate impaired perception.
Alcohol affects people differently, according to their sex, weight, and experience drinking. Some people have a higher response to drinking alcohol than others. For instance, a person with a high response to alcohol can experience signs of impairment at the .02 BAC level that others do not experience until the .05 level.
A 2008 study found that young adults aged 18 to 22 enrolled full-time in college were more likely than their peers not enrolled full-time to use alcohol in the past month, binge drink, and drink heavily. Past month alcohol use was reported by 63.7 percent of full-time college students compared with 53.5 percent of persons aged 18 to 22 who were not enrolled full-time. Binge drinking and heavy use of alcohol rates were 43.6 and 17.2 percent respectively, compared with 38.4 and 12.9 percent respectively for 18 to 22 year olds not enrolled full-time in college. Nearly three million college students admitted to driving a car while under the influence of alcohol!
Injuries or deaths caused by drunk drivers, particularly those who have a previous conviction for DUI, frequently involve the issue of uninsured or underinsured motorist insurance coverage. 50 to 75 percent of drunk drivers whose licenses are suspended continue to drive, usually without insurance, in which case you will have to make a claim under the uninsured motorist coverage of your own insurance policy.
Driving inexperience and immaturity are considered to be the main causes of motor vehicle accidents among drivers ages 16 to 20, even when alcohol is not involved. Adding alcohol to the mix, however, drastically increases the chances of this age group of causing an accident. Youthfulness combined with alcohol often leads to reckless driving and risk taking, such as speeding due to an under-appreciation of their behavior and overestimation of their driving skills.
Suppose the drunk driver who hit you became intoxicated at a bar, restaurant, or even a friend’s house. Can you sue the bar or friend for selling or otherwise furnishing the alcohol to the person knowing he or she was going to be driving home, and the intoxicated person causes an accident on the way home? Generally not.
California law makes it a criminal misdemeanor to sell, give, furnish or otherwise provide alcohol to “any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person.” However, a person who sells, gives, or otherwise furnishes any alcoholic beverage to any person, including a “habitual or common drunkard” or an obviously intoxicated person cannot be held civilly liable to any person injured or the family of a person killed as a result of intoxication by the consumer of the alcoholic beverage. The law is that it is that it is the drinking (“consumption”) of the liquor that is the cause of the intoxication, not the serving, selling, or otherwise furnishing of the alcoholic beverage. California law specifically states that a social host who provides alcoholic beverages to any person, including minors, cannot be held liable for damages suffered by a person injured by the guests drunken driving, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person resulting from the consumption of those beverages. This includes providing alcoholic beverages to obviously intoxicated persons whom the host knows is going to be driving a vehicle after leaving the social host’s premises.
The one exception to this rule of non-liability is that a person licensed to sell liquor who sells, gives, or otherwise furnishes an alcoholic beverage to an obviously intoxicated minor can be held liable for injuries, death, and/or damages caused by the minor where the furnishing, sale, or giving of the alcoholic beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death. The question that frequently arises in these cases is whether the minor was “obviously intoxicated” at the time he was sold or given the alcoholic beverage. This is called a dram-shop cause of action.
“Obvious intoxication” refers to visible and outward manifestations of intoxication that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the minor is intoxicated. Some of “visible and outward manifestations of intoxication” include incontinence, unkempt appearance, alcoholic breath, loud or boisterous conduct, bloodshot or glassy eyes, incoherent, slow, deliberate or slurred speech, flushed face, poor muscular coordination, unsteady or slow and deliberate walk, loss of balance, impaired judgment, or argumentative behavior. For a person to be obviously intoxicated, he or she must exhibit one or more of these outward and visible signs of intoxication sufficiently to cause a reasonable person to believe that he or she is intoxicated. Simply put, a supplier of alcohol must use reasonable care to ensure that the person receiving the alcoholic beverage is not an obviously intoxicated minor. A seller or supplier of alcoholic beverages must heed those symptoms of intoxication that are plain to a reasonable person having normal powers of observation.
Suppose you give your keys to the manager, bartender, or other employee and tell them not to return them to you if you are not fit to drive your vehicle after you are finished drinking. In such a case, the bartender may have a duty not to return the keys until the patron is able to drive safely or alternative arrangements to drive or take the intoxicated patron home have been made. In such a case, the manager or bartender has been found to have voluntarily undertaken the duty to ensure the person was able to drive safely and could be held responsible for returning the patron’s keys if he or she were intoxicated.
Under the “going and coming” rule, an employer generally is not vicariously liable for injuries caused by the careless (“negligent”) driving of its employer on the way to work or home. However, an employer may be held liable for injuries and damages caused by an employee on his or her way home from work who became intoxicated at a social function sponsored by the employer that the employee was required or expected to attend. Thus, where an employee had attended a banquet where he was invited by the employer for the purpose of receiving an award, the banquet was paid for by the employer, the liquor was furnished by the employer, and the employee was expected to attend the banquet, the employer was held vicariously liable for injuries caused by the employee while driving home intoxicated.
An employer was also held legally responsible for injuries caused by an intoxicated employee who got into an accident while driving home from work in an intoxicated condition, where the evidence showed that the employer permitted recurrent drinking parties on the premises, purchased the liquor from the company accounts, and encouraged the activity as both a business and social gathering.
In the typical car accident that was caused by the other party, you are entitled to recover medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. But suppose the driver who hit you was drunk at the time of the accident; can you recover punitive damages against the offending driver?
California law permits the award of punitive damages where there has been evidence that the defendant engaged in conduct that was guilty of oppression, fraud, ormalice. Malice is defined as “conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” “Oppression” means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of the person’s rights.
The adjective “despicable” means conduct that is so vile, base, contemptible, miserable; it means wretched, or loathsome conduct that would be looked down upon and despised by ordinary decent people.
Punitive damages are appropriate if the defendant’s acts are reprehensible, fraudulent, or in blatant violation or law or policy. The mere carelessness or ignorance of the defendant does not justify the imposition of punitive damages. Punitive damages are proper only when the tortious conduct rises to levels of extreme indifference to the plaintiff’s rights, a level which decent citizens should not have to tolerate.
A person who becomes intoxicated knowing that he or she will get behind the wheel to drive home or to some other place acts with callous disregard of the right of others on the road or sidewalk, and should be liable for punitive damages in addition to the standard general and special damages.
Accident cases where alcohol was a factor in the accident’s cause require unique and special attention in order to obtain maximum compensation for your injuries and damage incurred. Don’t leave your future and the future of your family to chance. Call upon the skill and expertise of the experienced DUI accident attorneys at TorkLaw.
If you have been injured by a drunk driver, it is important to contact an experienced personal injury law firm as soon as possible after the accident, as the law firm may want to send its own investigator to the scene of the accident to inspect and take pictures of the accident site and any dangerous condition that caused or contributed to the accident, especially before there are any significant changes to the condition from the time of the accident. The attorney or his or her investigator will also want to talk to any witnesses to the accident while the facts are still fresh in their minds. If a government employee was the intoxicated driver who harmed you, you may be able to sue his or her employer, the State, the county, the city, or the public agency. If that is the case, you need to act quickly, however, as a claim will have to filed with the appropriate government agency within six months of the accident. An experienced personal injury law firm will know how and where to file the claim on your behalf.
An experienced personal injury law firm can also help with seeing to it that you obtain appropriate and thorough medical care for your physical, emotional, and psychological injuries suffered as a result of the accident. They can also do everything possible to ensure that you obtain full compensation for your medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, property damage, lost wages, and all of your other injuries and damages. If you have been injured by a drunk driver, in additional to the traditional injuries you can recover, you may also be entitled to recover “punitive damages” against the driver. These are damages designed to punish the driver for his wrongful conduct and also to serve as a message to the driver that this type of conduct will not be tolerated. Punitive damages are also designed to send a warning to other drivers that, if they drink and drive and cause an accident, they will be held to pay the price.