Is a Drunk Driver Deemed Automatically at Fault for an Accident?

Every day drivers get behind the wheel despite the fact they are under the influence of alcohol which creates a high risk situation for the driver as well as other drivers and pedestrians who they come in contact with. Drinking and driving is a prevalent problem in the United States because approximately 16,000 people die each year in a drunk driving related car accident.2 Drunk driving also creates a large financial burden as the annual cost of alcohol related crashes totals more than 59 billion dollars.3 The presence of alcohol in a person’s system effects the brain which in turn effects the control and skills of the driver as evident in reduced reaction time, vision problems, lower concentration, coordination issues, and difficulty with comprehension.1

People often enjoy a glass of beer or wine in social settings. Others use alcohol to help unwind after a stressful day, but multiple drinks have various effects on a person. All states have laws related to the use of a vehicle after consumption of alcohol.

Nevertheless, many accidents involve an intoxicated driver. A collision can devastate an injured victim and leave them with costly bills. If you experienced a drunk driving accident, you are not alone.

You might have the right to sue for compensation if the other driver was negligent. A lawyer can help you at each step of the litigation process. You might discover more than one party is liable.

The Legal Blood Alcohol Content

The blood alcohol content is the measurement of alcohol in the bloodstream. For people over the age of 21, the legal blood alcohol content level is .08 percent. All states in the country have adopted the standard.

A person does not reach a 0.08 percent measurement after only a couple of beers. The average man would need to drink at least four 12-ounce cans of beer in an hour on an empty stomach. The average woman would need to consume at least three cans in an hour on an empty stomach.

Of course, different factors contribute to a person’s blood alcohol content level. The size and type of drink, body weight, and speed of consumption are common influences.

Each state has a different law regarding the zero-tolerance alcohol blood content level. Zero tolerance applies to people under the age of 21. Some states set the underage blood alcohol content level at 0.02 percent, and several others set the standard at 0.00 percent.

The Effect of Alcohol on a Driver

Overall, younger people have a higher chance of getting involved in car crashes regardless of blood alcohol content levels. After some drinks, a person can feel the effects of alcohol. A person usually feels more relaxed and becomes less alert.

A driver needs to stay alert and keep an eye on different areas of the road. Many people experience a loss of judgment. Impaired judgment can cause a driver to not yield to traffic or run a red light.

When a motorist consumes plenty of alcohol, they may have a decline in visual functions. For instance, they have a difficult time when they need to track a moving object. As a result, the chances of a collision increase. Some people are unable to do more than one task at a time.

Reduced coordination is a common effect of alcohol. The lack of proper muscle coordination can impact their reaction time. You may notice a drunk driver cannot maintain their lane position properly. They could swerve and hit another car in the adjacent or opposing lane.

Alcohol can alter a person’s mood, and some people display aggressive behavior as a result. The loss of self-control could mean the driver allows their behavior to lead to reckless actions. The effects of alcohol can become worse if someone consumes more drinks.

Penalties for a Drunk Driving Accident

According to the CDC, drunk driving accounts for nearly 28 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. An estimated 10,497 people die in a drunk driving accident every year. Many more receive injuries. Every state has different penalties for driving under the influence (DUI).

Some places sentence jail time for first or repeat offenders. Intoxicated drivers could spend several days or up to a year or more in prison. Another potential penalty includes fines.

Someone could pay hundreds to thousands of dollars, and many states increase the penalties for each offense. Driver’s license suspension is a common consequence as well. A motorist could get a suspension or revocation of a year or more.

Some jurisdictions require the offender to install an ignition interlock device in their vehicle. The court usually issues harsher DUI penalties if the motorist caused a collision.

If a drunk driving incident led to injuries or death, the intoxicated driver could face criminal charges. The court may determine the defendant is liable for vehicular assault or vehicular manslaughter. Depending on the state, the charges could be a misdemeanor or a felony.

Do Criminal Charges Determine Fault in a Car Accident?

If the driver had a blood alcohol content below 0.08 percent, they would not receive DUI charges. They are less likely to have criminal charges as well. Even if a motorist got a DUI, the court would only know the person had alcohol in their body.

A car accident case deals with the theory of fault. A plaintiff has to show proof the other driver was negligent. Someone could have gone above 0.08 percent, but they may not have caused the collision. Another party could be responsible.

For instance, a car part company might be at fault for a dangerous defect. The municipality could be liable due to a poorly designed road or intersection. Even though the other driver received a DUI, you have to prove how their actions directly led to damages.

How to Prove the Drunk Driver Was Negligent

To determine negligence for a car accident with a drunk driver, you need to prove three elements. First, you have to establish the fact the defendant had a duty of care. Typically, every motorist has a duty of care to each other and pedestrians.

A driver has to follow all the traffic laws and take reasonable measures to prevent harm. When someone consumes alcohol, they need to operate a vehicle safely. Alternatively, they should allow another person to drive.

The next step is to prove how the defendant failed their duty of care. The breach in duty of care is usually the failure to obey the area’s traffic laws. You would show how the drunk driver drove well above the speed limit or did not stop at a red light.

The final element has to do with causation. You have to show the direct connection between the defendant’s breach and the injuries and other damages. Once you prove all three elements of negligence, you can obtain compensation for the damages.

Potential Punitive Damages

The third type of damages the court can award the plaintiff is punitive damages. Punitive damages aim to punish the defendant for their reckless and harmful behavior. The judge may try to deter the at-fault driver from a repeat offense in the future.

Only a few victims receive punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. Punitive damages usually occur in or after a jury trial. A judge determines the verdict if the defendant displayed intentional misconduct or gross negligence.

The amount you receive depends on if the defendant was aware of the harmful nature of their actions. The at-fault driver’s ability to pay punitive damages is a contributing factor as well. Insurance companies tend to downplay the seriousness of the drunk driving accident. You need an attorney who can fight for the compensatory and punitive damages you should have.

Liable Parties Other Than the Driver

People can buy alcohol from a store, restaurant, or bar. A drunk driver could have obtained alcohol from a licensed establishment before they got into a collision. Many states have a dram shop liability statute to place responsibility on a bar or liquor store for a drunk driving accident.

Some states clarify you can sue a licensed seller if the seller had provided alcohol to a clearly intoxicated patron. A few other states likely will exempt restaurants and bars from liability unless an employee served an underaged person.

Multiple jurisdictions have social host liability laws as well. A social host is an individual who serves alcohol in a non-commercial setting. A host could be negligent if they knowingly gave an intoxicated guest alcohol. You could sue them if they provided alcohol to a minor as well.

Based on the jurisdiction, a parent or another minor could be responsible. If you want to sue a party other than the driver, you need to review the statutes of your state. An attorney can inform you if multiple parties were negligent in a drunk driving accident.

Plaintiffs Have Limited Time to File a Claim

Victims of a drunk driving car accident have a limited time to file a claim against the at-fault driver. The statute of limitations is different depending on where the plaintiff lives. Several states give people two years to begin a lawsuit, and others allow a maximum of three or four years.

If a loved one died due to the collision, you would make a wrongful death claim. The deadline usually starts on the date of the deceased’s death. A surviving spouse or child can file a lawsuit. A parent could represent the deceased if the victim was a minor.

You could file a suit against the liable party for property damage as well. The statute of limitations could be the same or different from the one for personal injury.

Some cases allow a person to extend the deadline. The defendant could have left the state soon after the drunk driving incident. The clock pauses until the at-fault party returns. Another exception is for victims who were minors at the time of the accident.

Some states allow the plaintiff to wait until they turn 18 before resuming the statute of limitations. Multiple states provide a similar extension for a mentally incapacitated victim. Once the status is gone, the clock begins to run.

A few places allow the plaintiff and defendant to enter a former tolling agreement. Both parties can have more time to settle the dispute to avoid a trial. You should speak with a lawyer to see if you can get an extension for the statute of limitations.

What to Do After a Drunk Driving Accident

If possible, check to see if anyone else is injured. You should try to move the vehicles out of the way of traffic. Do not shift someone if they are unconscious, have head or back pain, or cannot move their limbs. Warn other motorists of the accident if you cannot relocate people or vehicles off the road.

Call 911 to report the accident. An ambulance will show up to provide initial treatment, and the police can collect information about the collision. An officer can test the other driver for the presence of alcohol. You can later request a copy of the police report to help you with your case.

Collect the contact details from the other driver as well as their insurance information. If a witness was present, you could get their name and phone number. Witnesses can help you prove negligence during a lawsuit.

You should take pictures of the vehicles and your injuries as well. Pictures can prove the severity of the damages you sustained. Afterward, you should go to a doctor or hospital for treatment. You can know if you have any unseen issues like a traumatic brain injury.

The next step is to keep copies of medical records and bills. You can determine how much you can claim in compensation. Then, you should contact an attorney to help you with your drunk driving accident case.

Self-Representation in a Drunk Driving Accident Lawsuit Is a Terrible Idea

A person could hesitate to hire a drunk driving accident attorney due to low financial resources. Some people might want to represent themselves in the lawsuit. A plaintiff who represents themselves is a pro se litigant.

Around 2,702 personal injury cases have pro se litigants every year.

However, a severe drunk driving accident could make pro se civil litigation an uphill battle. Your injuries might have needed extensive treatment and rehabilitation. You might have lost a significant amount of income as well.

As a result, you could request a lot of money in compensation. A high settlement raises the stakes of a lawsuit since insurance companies want to pay as little as possible. You would want a lawyer who can handle the aggressive tactics of insurers.

A lawsuit can take up plenty of your time, and recovery may already keep you busy. The caseload could cause stress, and a pro se litigant is likely to make a mistake. A lawyer minimizes the risk of losing your claim.

How do Criminal Charges Play into Finding Fault in an Auto Accident?

Low levels of alcohol can impair a driver, but a person is not considered illegally impaired or over the legal limit until his or her Blood Alcohol Content is over 0.8. When a driver receives a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or a DWI (Driving While Impaired) it shows that they were driving a vehicle with alcohol in their system, but it does not necessarily equate to responsibility on the part of the drunk driver for the car accident.4 In order for an intoxicated driver to be found at fault for a car accident the determination must be reached by a court under a personal injury claim.5

How to Prove a Drunk Driver is at Fault for an Auto Accident

In order to have a successful personal injury claim involving a drunk driver there are four elements that must be proved. First, the claim must prove there was a duty. In a car accident case, all drivers as licensed by the state to take the wheel, are under a duty to drive in a safe manner in which they obey all traffic laws. Second, this duty must have been breached by failing to obey the traffic laws. Third, the injured party must prove causation. This requires proof that the failure to obey the traffic laws was the direct cause of the auto accident. Finally, the claim must be filed by a party who was injured. Though the injury is not limited to physical damages it can include property damages, emotional suffering, or punitive damages.

Contact an Experienced St. Louis Car Accident Lawyer for a Free Consultation

Therefore, when an intoxicated driver is involved in an auto accident it does not automatically equate to the driver being deemed at fault for the accident. However, what it does mean is that the injured party was involved in a car accident whose circumstances should be discussed and evaluated by an experienced car accident attorney who can protect the rights and interests of the injured party by determining the appropriate actions to take against the drunk driver.

To contact an auto accident attorney for a free consultation about the circumstances of your car accident please feel free to call the The Bruning Law Firm trial attorneys at 314-735-8100.


  5. Ibid.
Contact the St. Louis drunk driving car accident lawyers at the Bruning Law Firm today.