While drunk driving is a criminal offense, drunk drivers can be sued in a civil process. Victims can file a lawsuit against drunk drivers to recover damages for the injuries a drunk driver causes. As a matter of right, the civil process allows victims to recover damages to foot the medical bills and other incidental expenses incurred to treat injuries sustained in a crash caused by a drunk driver. The lawsuit is independent of the criminal process. This, therefore, means that victims do not have to wait for the driver’s conviction to file a civil lawsuit. As a victim of a crash caused by a drunk driver, it is in your best interest to get in touch with a personal injury attorney to maximize your likelihood of securing just compensation.
Suing a Drunk Driver in California
A civil case is only successful when you prove the driver’s negligence. Driving under the influence impairs a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely. Their actions then pose a danger to other road users. However, just because they drove drunk does not automatically prove their fault for the crash. This then shifts the burden of proof to you, the plaintiff in the case.
To secure damages, you need to prove that:
- The drunk driver, the defendant, was negligent, and
- You suffered damages as a result of said negligence
Negligence Under California Law
Negligence arises when an individual fails to exercise reasonable care to prevent inflicting harm to others. Motorists are expected to exercise this care when driving and are thus considered to owe a duty of care to other road users. Drunk driving compromises reasonable care and therefore constitutes negligence.
A violation of a statute or ordinance amounts to negligence per se. ‘Per se’ is Latin referring to itself. In drunk driving civil suits, negligence per se is critical. By driving drunk, the defendant violates laws meant to protect other road users. Therefore, the violation is proof of negligence in and of itself.
A defendant is presumed negligent under California’s negligence per se law if the following are true.
- He or she violated an ordinance, law, or a statute, and
- The violation resulted in harm or injury to another
Recall, as the plaintiff, you should prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence. The defendant will then establish the following in their defense.
- He/she is not in violation of any ordinance, law, or statute
- The violation did not cause the injuries you suffered
DUI Laws in California
Understanding the various laws put in place as a safeguard to prevent unnecessary harm to other motorists is crucial. It also forms the basis to know which particular law the driver violated. Let us analyze each of them.
Driving Under the Influence, Under VC 23152(a), (f), and (g)
VC 23152 criminalizes operating a vehicle while under the influence. Both alcohol and drug use impair a driver’s judgment and thus risks causing a crash that ultimately will result in injuries to the victims.
It is unlawful to drive a car under the influence of alcohol, according to VC 23152(a). Subsection (f) of the same law prohibits operating a vehicle if you are under the influence of drugs. Finally, it is a crime under subsection (g) to drive under the influence of both alcohol and drugs.
Per Se DUI Rule for Adult Drivers, Under VC 23152(b)
VC 23152(b) sets the threshold for what constitutes being drunk. Drivers are subjected to a blood or breath test to determine their alcohol percentage, known as the blood alcohol test (BAC). No driver should operate a vehicle with a BAC level beyond 0.08%.
Any individual above 21 years of age driving a vehicle with a BAC level of 0.08% or higher violates VC 23152(b). As for drugs, there is no standard measure of drug concentration in the bloodstream. However, drivers will be subjected to a series of tests, including blood tests by drug recognition experts (DREs). Their assessment will be used as evidence in the lawsuit.
It is worth noting that all these tests are done at the traffic stop, per the rules set for police officers under Title 17.
DUI for Commercial Drivers, VC 23152(d)
Commercial drivers have a different BAC measure. According to VC 23152(d), commercial drivers should not operate commercial vehicles with a BAC of or exceeding 0.04%. Commercial vehicles pose a significant risk to other road users due to their size and cargo. This is why the BAC level is lower than for other drivers.
DUI Provisions for Drivers Providing Taxi, Limo, or Ride-Sharing Services, VC VC 23152(e)
It is illegal for drivers offering driving services to drive with their passengers while under the influence.
The law came into effect on July 1, 2018. These drivers are only guilty under this section if they have a BAC level of 0.04% or higher at the time of driving the vehicle. Additionally, the driver should have a passenger for hire in the car at the time of the incident.
Passengers for hire refer to individuals who pay for a driver’s services, including limo, taxi, and ride-share services like Uber and Lyft.
DUI for Underage Drivers, VC 23140
Individuals under 21 years under this law are considered underage. They should not operate vehicles while intoxicated. Any underage driver driving a car with a BAC level of or exceeding 0.05% violates VC 23136.
An underage driver with a BAC of 0.05% or higher is considered too drunk to drive. The assumption holds even if he/she was not impaired.
Zero Tolerance Rule on Underage DUI, Under VC 23136
California adopted the “zero tolerance” rule as a measure to curb underage drunk driving. The rule makes it illegal for persons under 21 years to drive with a 0.01% BAC or higher after consuming alcohol.
Any drink or food, once consumed, is enough to increase the BAC level to 0.01%. Alcohol sources are also not limited to food and drinks. Medication too can cause the blood alcohol concentration to hit the 0.01% mark. Homeopathic drugs, cough syrups, cold formulas like Nyquil, and topical mouth-numbing ointments are some examples of medication with an alcoholic effect.
Alcohol-based mouthwash, too, can spike the alcohol concentration.
Given the substances mentioned above, it can be argued that the individual was not impaired. While this is true because technically, the violation is not a DUI, it does not eliminate culpability. Any under 21 whose tests reveal a 0.01% BAC is assumed negligent per se under the zero-tolerance rule.
Culpability under the zero-tolerance rule is not enough for your suit. You will need to prove that the crash that caused your injuries was caused by the defendant’s impaired driving.
Operating a Vehicle While Addicted to Drugs, VC 23152(c)
To drive a vehicle while addicted to a drug violates VC 23152(c). Drugs under this law refer to any substance or a mixture of substances that affect the nervous system, functioning of the brain, or muscles. All these affect a driver’s ability to operate the vehicle safely while exercising due caution.
Drugs, under this law, include prescription or over-the-counter medication. Illegal substances like cocaine or heroin do not apply under this law. Additionally, alcohol too does not apply under this law.
Being addicted to a drug implies:
- Physical dependence on a drug — Being deprived of it will result in suffering withdrawal symptoms
- Emotional dependence on the drug — Individuals with an emotional dependence feel the compulsive need to use the drug
- Tolerance to its effects — Tolerance requires the consumption of higher doses to maintain the same experience the drug offered with its first use.
The law offers an exception. Individuals attending a narcotics treatment program are free to drive. They will not be charged for driving under the influence while addicted.
Refusal to Take a Chemical Test, a Violation of VC 23612(a)
It is implied that by driving in California, you consent to a chemical test when stopped or arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Refusing to take a chemical test is considered negligence per se and a violation of VC 23612(a). In most cases, the conclusion drawn from a driver’s refusal to submit to a chemical test is an admission of their impairment.
The laws under consideration in civil lawsuits in Los Angeles are not limited to California laws. A violation of federal laws or regulations is also taken into account.
Federal law criminalizes drunk driving for Interstate commercial vehicle drivers. The law upholds 0.04% as the BAC level commercial drives should not exceed. However, the law makes an exception for drivers who have controlled substances in their system while performing safety-sensitive functions.
Regardless of the law the defendant violated, as the plaintiff, you must demonstrate a direct link between the accident and the defendant’s violation of said ordinance, law, or regulation. The link is determined by the jury based on the facts of the case.
A DUI Criminal Conviction’s Significance in a Civil Lawsuit
Criminal proceedings and civil lawsuits serve different goals.
Criminal proceedings aim at establishing criminal culpability, thus punishing the defendant. It is assumed that a conviction serves as a deterrent for other drivers tempted to drive under the influence. To this end, guilt should be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. All 12 jurors need to agree on the verdict.
Civil lawsuits seek to compensate victims for their injuries and damages sustained owing to wrongful acts. In this case, negligence. Therefore, liability is established by a preponderance of evidence. However, unlike in criminal proceedings, only nine out of the 12 must agree.
Criminal and civil proceedings are independent of each other. You do not have to wait for a criminal proceeding to begin or wait for its verdict to institute a civil lawsuit against the drunk driver. However, a DUI conviction in a criminal proceeding is significant in a civil suit.
A DUI conviction is proof that the drunk driver was negligent per se. Even if the defendant pleads guilty to a plea bargain charge, wet or dry reckless, the guilty plea is an admission of wrongdoing. Hence, in the driver's admission, he/she was negligent per se. However, culpability in a civil trial does not impact a criminal case. It does not establish guilt under the DUI laws in California.
Damages Recoverable in a Lawsuit Against a Drunk Driver
A lawsuit against a drunk driver seeks compensatory and punitive damages. These damages refer to the payout defendants pay to compensate the victim for the losses or injuries from their wrongdoing. On the other hand, punitive damages punish defendants and serve to deter others from engaging in similar behavior.
Compensatory damages are divided into two categories.
- Economic damages — These compensation packages compensate plaintiffs for losses to which a dollar value can be attached. The list of losses includes but is not limited to medical expenses, lost earnings, property damages, and lost earning capacity. Economic damages also go by the term special damages.
- Non-economic damages — Unlike economic damages, noneconomic or general damages are losses whose actual value cannot be expressed in a dollar amount. The losses are subjective. They include but are not limited to pain and suffering, disfigurement, inconvenience, loss of companionship and ability to enjoy life, emotional distress, physical impairment, and unjust hardship.
Your evidence must substantiate that the defendant was guilty of fraud, oppression, or malice to recover punitive damages.
Malice, in this case, does not refer to evil intention. It refers to a defendant’s conduct aimed at inflicting injury to the plaintiff. Alternatively, it can refer to despicable behavior by the defendant, willfully and consciously carried out in disregard of others’ rights and safety.
You must establish the following in justification of an award of punitive damages under malice.
- The drunk driver was aware of the dangerous consequences his/her conduct posed
- He/she intentionally and knowingly failed to avoid these consequences.
California’s supreme court’s precedence on the malice test is to the effect that the test is met in two circumstances.
- An individual voluntarily consumes alcohol or drugs to the point of inebriation, and
- The individual is fully aware that he/she will thereafter have to operate a vehicle.
Families of victims of drunk driving crashes can sue the drunk driver. Their lawsuit aims at recovering damages too for loss of consortium, wrongful death, or a California ‘survival action’. They, too, can recover punitive damages.
In most cases, family members should file the lawsuit, particularly when the injury or death of a loved one caused an unfair disadvantage. This is especially the case when the injury or death of a loved one deprives them of the victim’s financial support and companionship.
What Happens If I’m Partly at Fault for the Crash With a DUI Driver
Comparative negligence is the standard in California for determining fault in accidents. It, therefore, means that drunk driving does not automatically imply 100% responsibility for the accident. The comparative negligence rule allows for juries to apportion fault between the defendants and the victims.
Some states like Nevada require a defendant to be at least 50% responsible for an injury in a personal injury case. California doesn’t. You can sue the driver even if they are partially at fault.
Insurance Coverage on Drunk Drivers
You can recover compensatory damages from a drunk driver’s insurance company. Most insurance companies pay for the injuries or losses sustained from a crash caused by a drunk driver. Damages may be recovered under the defendant’s third-party auto liability policy or your uninsured or underinsured motorist insurance coverage.
You still have the option of seeking damages directly from the drunk driver by suing them. You can utilize this option if there is no policy covering the accident or the cumulative policy limits or all policies available do not cover your damages.
It is important to note that insurance providers do not pay punitive damages. All punitive damages are recoverable from the defendant.
Actions to Take When Hit By a Drunk Driver
The actions you take after being involved in the crash are pivotal for your lawsuit. Here are a few to consider.
- Safety first — Call 911 and request for police officers to the scene. Their assessment is crucial as they will determine if the driver was drunk or not. Additionally, their report will detail who was at fault.
Additionally, the 911 dispatcher will send EMTs to attend to the injured.
- If you are in a position to, collect the drunk driver’s details. Record his/her license plate, name, driver’s license number, vehicle identification number (VIN), phone number, and insurance information. If you are not in a position to, have another do it for you.
- Take or have another take photos and videos of the scene.
- Most importantly, get in touch with a credible personal injury attorney.
Find a Personal Injury Attorney Near Me
Recovery from a car crash is critical. Seeking compensation on your own during this process is frustrating and can hamper your recovery. Let a personal injury attorney handle the pursuing damages while you recover. At Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney, we make it our mission to secure just compensation for our clients. Call our offices today at 424-231-2013 if you or a loved one are victims of a drunk driving crash in Los Angeles.