Those who decide to get behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated put everyone on the road in danger. Despite efforts by law enforcement and national anti-drinking and driving organizations, drunk driving car accidents still claim the lives of thousands of adults and children each year in the United States, and seriously injure many more.
If you were hurt in an accident caused by a drunk driver or if your loved one was killed in one, it’s important to know your legal rights and your options for obtaining compensation for damages. This small guide briefly explains your options and the types of damages you may be able to recover. Note that each case is different, so you’ll want to speak to a local drunk driving accident attorney in Atlanta before filing a claim or taking any type of legal action.
How common are drunk driving accidents?
The answer is: far too common. In 2013, over 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Every single one of these deaths could have been prevented had the intoxicated drivers made better decisions and not have gotten behind the wheel. In Georgia, roughly 1,200 people die in traffic accidents each year, and a whopping quarter of the fatalities are attributed to alcohol, reports the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in Georgia.
The devastation that alcohol impaired drivers and operators cause on roadways and waterways is simply enormous. Below are a few quick facts about drunk driving in the United States (provided by the NHTSA, CDC, and FBI).
- One person died every 52 minutes in the U.S. in a drunk driving accident in 2013.
- Approximately 200 children ages 14 and younger were killed by drunk drivers in 2013.
- Drunk driving accidents cost our country an estimated $59 billion a year.
- In a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, 4 million adults admitted to at least one episode of driving while impaired in the past 30 days. This means that there are 479 drunk driving episodes per 1,000 adult population.
- Over 1.4 million drivers are arrested each year for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This figure represents only one percent of the self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving in the aforementioned survey.
General Succession of Drunk Driving Cases
When an accident occurs and law enforcement is called to the scene, the officers assess each driver and may perform a breath test and/or sobriety test if they suspect alcohol or drugs were a factor. If the officers find that a driver is intoxicated, they may place him under arrest. The driver (the defendant) will face criminal charges for driving under the influence, which carry possible penalties that include jail time, fees, and loss of driving privileges.
This criminal case is separate from any civil case a victim of the accident would pursue. If the victim of a drunk driving accident (or her family members if she was killed) wishes to pursue financial restitution for harms suffered, she will need to file a personal injury claim or civil lawsuit.
Note, the outcome of the defendant’s criminal case has no bearing on the outcome of the victim’s personal injury case. Regardless of whether the criminal court finds the defendant guilty or not guilty, the victim can still file a claim or suit – and still potentially win the case. The standard to prove liability in a civil suit or claim is lower than the standard to prove guilt in a criminal case.
Filing an Insurance Claim or Personal Injury Lawsuit after a Drunk Driving Accident
Most victims begin the process of obtaining compensation for damages by filing a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. Unfortunately, this avenue may be futile or quickly exhausted if the drunk driver doesn’t carry insurance or if the drunk driver’s insurance doesn’t cover the full amount of damages. If you cannot obtain adequate compensation to accommodate your damages, you might have to file an insurance claim with your own insurance company. Whether or not this is an option depends upon the type of coverage you carry.
Another option victims have is to file a lawsuit against the drunk driver in civil court. This may be necessary if the drunk driver’s insurance doesn’t cover damages or if there is a dispute about fault or compensable damages. Likewise, if the drunk driving accident was fatal, the surviving family members of the victim have the right to file a wrongful death claim or lawsuit against the driver.
In order to win your claim or lawsuit, you and your attorney will need to establish liability, i.e., prove that the driver who caused the wreck was negligent and that negligence led to the accident. Driving while intoxicated is an act of negligence, making the driver liable for the damages he causes in most cases. Your lawyer can establish fault by representing evidence such as police records, toxicology reports, and eyewitness testimonies.
Types of Compensable Damages
You will also need to prove to the insurer or the court that you suffered damages as a result of the accident in order to win your case. Damages can be physical, emotional, and financial. If the insurance companies or courts decide in your favor, you can recover numerous damages, including the following.
- Medical bills, both current and future
- Prescriptions, rehabilitation, surgeries, and other treatments
- Medical-related transportation costs
- Loss of wages, loss of promotion, and loss of benefits
- Disability and disfigurement
- Pain and suffering
- Mental anguish
- Post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional damages
- The effect the accident has had on your family, relationships, and sense of well-being
- Funeral expenses; loss of income and benefits; loss of consortium; and loss of love, comfort, and support (in wrongful death cases)
Some claimants or plaintiffs may even collect punitive damages. These punish the negligent party rather than account for the injured party’s damages. They are meant as a deterrent to extremely reckless behavior. In order to recover punitive damages, the injured party must prove the defendant was grossly negligent. In most cases, punitive damages are capped at $250,000. But when drugs or alcohol are involved, there is no cap.
When Dram Shop Liability Comes into Play
Victims of drunk driving accidents should also be aware of a law referred to as the Georgia Dram Shop Act, detailed in O.C.G.A. 51-1-40. The law provides that bar owners, restaurant owners, and even private home owners or hosts of parties can be liable for victims’ damages in certain drunk driving accidents. There are three elements that must be present in order for the shop owner or homeowner to be liable for the accident.
- The owner, bartender, or host (defendant) furnished alcohol to someone who was showing signs of intoxication or who was under the age of 21.
- The defendant knew the intoxicated person would be driving.
- It was the provision of alcohol to the intoxicated person that caused the accident.
Filing a suit against a shop owner for a drunk driving car accident is not an easy feat. It requires careful investigation, witness testimonies, and an intricate knowledge of how to navigate dram shop liability cases. Your attorney can advise you as you file a claim or lawsuit against a drunk driver and explore liability of an establishment or social host as well.
Speak to a Lawyer about Your Accident – Call Jason Schultz
While filing a case against a wrongdoer will not undue the harm you suffered or bring back your loved one, it may bring you a sense of justice and closure.
Attorney Jason R. Schultz, P.C. has been practicing personal injury and wrongful death law in Atlanta for nearly 25 years. He has handled numerous drunk driving accident cases with successful outcomes. Make sure you check out our free eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Injury Cases in Georgia – The Truth about Your Injury Case.
For a free, one-on-one consultation with Jason Schultz, contact our office in Atlanta today at 404-474-0804.