Drunk driving is dangerous and those injured by an intoxicated driver often face severe injuries or even death. To be sure, DUIs are one of the primary causes of motor vehicle accidents. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approximate that 35% of all fatal car accidents are caused by a driver whose blood alcohol concentration was 0.08 percent (the legal limit in Georgia) or higher. NHTSA also estimates that in 40% of all motor vehicle accidents involving a death, some alcohol had been consumed by at least one of the involved motorists.
So how are drunk driving civil claims handled different than a “standard” automobile personal injury claim? In any automobile person injury claim a person is entitled to compensation in the form of property damage, reimbursement of medical bills, pain and suffering, permanent disability and lost wages. Other forms of compensation may be present depending on the circumstances. However, when an intoxicated driver injures an individual, there are some significant differences. Georgia is tough on drunk drivers and permits excess recovery as a deterrent against drivers getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Not only can an individual injured by a drunk driver recover the same compensation permitted in the “standard” negligence claim, but that person may also receive punitive damages. Punitive damages are those awarded to a plaintiff in excess of compensatory damages in order to punish the defendant for a reckless or willful act. Not all cases will present punitive damages claims, but an attorney should definitely explore the issue, especially since Georgia does not put a cap the amount of punitive damages. For instance, in a recent one-day trial in Savannah, Georgia a jury awarded a woman injured by an alleged drunken driver more than $1.1 million. In that claim, the driver had a blood alcohol content of .179 nearly four hours after the wreck and the jury took him to task for his irresponsibility.
Another difference is the parties who can be found liable in a drunk driving accident. The intoxicated driver is obvious, but others can be brought in a civil action. For instance, under Georgia’s dram shop statute a commercial establishment that served or sold the intoxicated driver prior to the accident can be named in a lawsuit. This includes bars, clubs, restaurants etc. There are two elements of this claim. First, the commercial establishment must willfully and knowingly serve or sell alcohol to a person below the age of 21, or to a person who is noticeably intoxicated. Second, the establishment must be aware that the person will be operating a motor vehicle at the time of serving or selling him or her alcohol. This latter element can be tricky and is largely factually dependent. Not just commercial establishments are on the hook either. Social hosts can face liability as well, so think twice when you are throwing a shindig and an intoxicated person leaves to get behind the wheel.
The bottom line is clear. Do not drink and drive. Ever. And if you are one of the very unfortunate individuals who is injured by an intoxicated driver, consult an attorney. Counsel can ensure you get all the compensation to which you are entitled and assist with communications between insurance adjusters and the like. Very important topics like policy limits are likely to come into play, and you will likely need representation to make sure you collect all the damages to which you are entitled.