I Was Hit by a Drunk Driver: Who is Liable?
You were driving home after the night shift, anxious to call it a day, when a swerving pickup truck blew through a red light and clipped your rear fender, causing a spin out. Your car was badly damaged and you think you may have suffered whiplash. The driver -- who reeks of alcohol -- appears to be heavily intoxicated. The (most likely) drunk driver would appear to be at fault and thus liable for your injuries. But what if you were the one who ran the red light, striking a drunk driver who was otherwise following the rules of the road?
It's not always so clear who's liable when you're hit by a drunk driver, since it's possible that both parties contributed some level of negligence. The injured party would have to prove that the other party's negligence or reckless actions were the proximate cause of the injuries, even if the other party is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). And even then, both parties could be partially at fault.
Determining who is liable for an accident when at least one of the parties is impaired really just comes down to the facts and what directly led to the incident.
How Fault and Liability are Determined: The Basics
If you are hit by a drunk driver, the negligence linked to his or her intoxication is nearly always to blame. But as a matter of law, there has to be a clear causation connecting the actions of the impaired driver to the accident and injuries. It's helpful to understand the basic elements of a negligence case:
- Duty: When you're on the road you have a duty to follow traffic rules, yield to known hazards, and generally respect the safety of others.
- Breach of Duty: Speeding, driving recklessly, and driving impaired constitute breaches of this duty.
- Cause in Fact: Would the motorist who was hit by a drunk driver still have suffered injuries if the other driver wasn't impaired? This element focuses on the actual causation of the injuries.
- Proximate Cause: If the injuries were outside of the scope of what the impaired driver could have reasonably foreseen, then the plaintiff can't prove that the driver's impairment was the proximate cause of the injuries.
- Damages: The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered damages, such as damage to their vehicle and/or bodily injuries.
If you were hit by a drunk driver and suffered damages, then we can generally assume they breached their duty simply by being impaired. But you still would need to connect the dots and prove that the impairment was the cause in fact, and that the impaired driver's condition and resulting negligence was the proximate cause of your damages.
Using the example above, if you were hit by a drunk driver after you ran a red light, then you may not be able to prove that their intoxication was to blame, or that the drunk driver could have foreseen your own negligence in running the red light. Therefore, even if they are arrested for a DUI, you may not have a claim against the driver. While these instances are rare, liability is always determined by these elements (courts sometimes combine cause in fact and proximate cause into a single element).
You Were Hit by a Drunk Driver but You're Partially at Fault
It's always possible that both the drunk driver and the other motorist contributed to the accident. For example, let's say you were sending a text message while trying to change lanes and cut off a driver who is impaired and speeding in the right lane. The other driver rear-ends you (unable to respond in time) and you suffer both vehicle damage and bodily injury. If the other driver wasn't drunk, they may have been able to avoid hitting you. But if you hadn't been distracted by your mobile phone, you wouldn't have cut off the other driver in the first place. So who's liable?
While you still likely would have a valid claim against the drunk driver, they may be able to prove you also were at least partially at fault. This is referred to as either comparative or contributory negligence. The majority of states use comparative negligence theory, which reduces damages by the percentage of fault attributable to the plaintiff. While courts generally take a hard line against drunk driving, they also are increasingly more aware of the grave dangers posed by distracted driving. So it would be up to the court to decide.
Hit by a Drunk Driver? Get an Attorney's Help
Car accidents can be quite traumatic, and they often result in serious injuries when drunk drivers are involved. But it's not always clear who's liable especially when multiple people may share in the negligence. Get help today by speaking with a local attorney specializing in car accident cases.
Contact a qualified auto accident attorney to make sure your rights are protected.