Proving Negligence in Substance-Related Crashes

| Oct 28, 2020 | Car Accidents

An extensive legal, law enforcement, and public relations campaign against “drunk drivers” began in the 1980s. Despite all these efforts, alcohol still causes about a third of the fatal car crashes in Lexington. Add drugged driving to the mix, and the proportion is close to 50 percent. Marijuana is the leading cause of drugged driving cases. Prescription pills, like Oxycontin and Xanax, are a close second. Although these drugs are at least semi-legal to consume, it is illegal and dangerous to drive under their influence.

Because of their nature, substance-related crashes frequently cause serious injuries, such as head injuries. Therefore, a Lexington personal injury attorney can normally obtain substantial compensation for these victims. This compensation normally includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages might also be available in extreme situations, such as a tortfeasor (negligent driver) with a very high BAC level.

Direct Evidence

Substance-related wrecks are usually not accidents. People accidentally leave the water running. They do not accidentally consume alcohol or take drugs and then get behind the wheel. Granted, they do not intend to hurt anyone, at least in most cases. Nevertheless, the law holds people responsible for the driving mistakes they make. That’s the way it should be.

Frequently, the driving mistake is unintentionally breaking a safety law. So, if the tortfeasor was arrested for DUI, the negligence per se shortcut could apply. Tortfeasors could be liable for damages as a matter of law if:

  • They violate a safety law, and

  • That violation substantially causes injury.

Sometimes, negligence per se is only a presumption of liability as opposed to absolute proof of legal fault. That’s especially true if the tortfeasor broke a non-penal safety law, like speeding or changing lanes illegally.

Significantly, the negligence per se rule usually applies even if the tortfeasor “beats” the DUI in criminal court. Assume Rex was arrested for DUI following a collision. He refused to provide a chemical sample. As a result, the state must use circumstantial proof in court, and the jury concludes there was a lack of evidence. The negligence per se rule still applies in Rex’s personal injury case, even though he was not convicted of DUI. The civil jury determines all the facts in a civil case.

Circumstantial Evidence

Most people are legally intoxicated after they consume three or four drinks. But alcohol impairment begins with the first drink. Similarly, drug impairment usually begins with the first puff or pill.

If the tortfeasor was not charged with DUI, a Lexington personal injury attorney can use circumstantial evidence to establish impairment. The circumstantial evidence in Rex’s criminal trial was probably the field sobriety tests, such as the one-leg stand. But in civil court, the burden of proof is much lower. Therefore, circumstantial evidence of impairment usually includes:

  • Erratic driving prior to the crash,

  • Bloodshot eyes,

  • Unsteady balance,

  • Odor of alcohol, and

  • Previous location.

That last bullet illustrates how the burden of proof, which is a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not), works. If Rex ate dinner at a restaurant that served alcohol, it is more likely than not that he had at least one drink there. 

The insurance company could refute that point, but only by introducing an itemized bill or other such evidence which proves Rex had nothing to drink. However, even that proof might not be enough to sway skeptical jurors who naturally dislike drunk drivers. 

Third Party Liability

Kentucky is one of the few remaining states with a dram shop law. This law holds bars, restaurants, and other commercial alcohol providers liable for damages if the patron was obviously intoxicated at the time of the sale.

To establish obvious intoxication, attorneys typically use the same circumstantial evidence discussed above. Additionally, statements the tortfeasor made to other people about intoxication or previous alcohol consumption are usually admissible.

The theory behind the dram shop law is simple. These establishments have a chance to stop substance-related crashes before they start, simply by refusing to serve someone who has already had one too many.

Foreseeability is sometimes an issue in these claims. It is clearly foreseeable that a person will drive home from a bar or restaurant, unless there is clear evidence that someone else drove or the person took an Uber home. It is generally foreseeable, although not necessarily inevitable, that an intoxicated person who buys packaged alcohol will open it and drink some of it on the way home. Foreseeability is a bit more difficult to establish in drugged driving claims.

Noncommercial alcohol providers, like party hosts, might also be vicariously liable for car crash damages, under a theory like negligent undertaking.

Substance-related crash victims are entitled to significant compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lexington, contact the Goode Law Office, PLLC. You have a limited amount of time to act.