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Riverside | San Bernardino Drunk Driver Accidents and Litigation

I. A Clear and Present Danger
     The number of alcohol related accidents each year is staggering, and continues to account for a substantial percentage of both criminal and civil lawsuits. According to the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD), “Approximately 10,000 people die and 250,000 people are injured each year as a result of individuals who continually drink and drive. In addition, chronic drinking drivers cost the economy $1.5 billion per year in enforcement and adjudication and $45 billion per year in property damage” ( These numbers are grave examples of the prevalence of drunk driving today.
    The NCADD survey indicates that on a yearly average, nearly 25% of Americans drive shortly after consuming at least some alcohol. When juxtaposed with the fact that the number of drivers in the United States in 1998 was estimated to be over 166 million, the statistics indicate that approximately 41.5 million people per year have driven after consuming alcohol. Moreover, the NCADD survey points out that, “Of this group, between 1.5 to 4.0 million have driven after consuming enough alcohol to be impaired at the .08 level.”
    The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety used statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to discover that, “In 1998, 28% of drivers killed in traffic crashes had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .10 or higher.”
    These figures are shocking in and of themselves, but they are a gross understatement of the truth, considering that most drunk driving goes undetected. The NCADD estimates that the probability of arrest is 1 in 2000 incidents of drunk driving.
    The statistics in California are just as alarming. The above statistics further prove the relationship between alcohol and accidents.

II. What Constitutes Drunk Driving?
    The phrase “drunk driving,” when used in a legal context can be referred to as “operating while intoxicated,” “operating under the influence,” or operating with “prohibited alcohol concentration of .08 or more.” California Vehicle Code 23152 prohibits any person from driving or operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance, or any combination of such. Most often, drunk driving is proven by a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 or more(BAC) that exceeds the legal limit.

III. How is Drunk Driving Proved?
     All criminal lawsuits are brought by the state through the district attorney. These lawsuits hold no direct value for an injured party, other than the emotional or psychological relief of witnessing a sentence, fine, or suspension. A victim is not allowed to hire an attorney for criminal prosecution, and has no control over the outcome of such.
VI. Civil Lawsuits for Drunk Driving Accidents
     Unfortunately, the only remedy for a victim or a victim’s family is financial compensation accorded through a civil lawsuit. It is a common misconception that a plaintiff victim who was injured by drunk driver can sue the offender in criminal court, and guarantee that the offender is sentenced or fined. Although this may be the only resolution desired by the victim, it is not one that can be controlled or even pursued by the injured party. The notion that money will somehow compensate for the permanent injury or loss of a family member is inconceivable to many, yet it continues to be the only feasible alternative available.
     Plaintiffs to a civil lawsuit can sue for compensatory and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are usually mitigated to pecuniary losses, including total medical expenses incurred, lost wages, and the loss of future earnings or earning capacity. However, compensatory damages can also include an award for pain, suffering, mental anguish, permanent disability, and loss of society and companionship by a spouse, child, or parent resulting from the accident. These damages are usually covered by insurance, assuming some insurance coverage is available.
Punitive damages are seldom covered by insurance, which, when substantial, can lead to the garnishing of wages or the acquiring of personal assets or income.  
     If the drunk driver has liability insurance sufficient to cover the total amount of damages, then the defendant’s insurance company will pay. In situations where the drunk driver has no insurance, or the victim’s damages exceed the amount of insurance coverage available, the plaintiff can usually recover under his or her own uninsured (UM) or underinsured (UIM) motorist policy. However, any judgment over and above the total amount of insurance coverage available from all insurers will subject the defendant’s personal income and assets to seizure.
     For example, assume the judge approves a verdict of $100,000.00, 50% of which consists of compensatory damages covered by the insurance policies involved. If the defendant has the minimum $25,000.00 liability coverage, and there is another $25,000.00 of UIM coverage available, the combined total only covers half of the awarded judgment. Any additional recovery would have to come from the drunk driver’s personal assets, if any.
Time and again, a financially unstable defendant will attempt to file bankruptcy to wipe out all debts and prove his or her lack of net worth. However, the bankruptcy code, 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(9), explicitly exempts from discharge debts arising out of the intoxicated use of a motor vehicle. In these situations, the court can permit the plaintiff to garnish a percentage of the defendant’s wages until the total judgment is recovered.

VII. Suing other persons responsible - Other Sources of Compensation
     There are several alternative sources of compensation available to victims of drunk driving accidents. Some legal theories include negligent entrustment, Dram Shop laws, vicarious liability, liability of suppliers to underage drinkers, and social host liability. All of these theories are founded in suing a potentially liable third party.
     Negligent entrustment is a term used to impose liability on another party, usually in hopes of introducing another source of compensation. This theory would work in a situation where one person gives permission to an intoxicated person to drive that person’s vehicle. This entrustment is only negligent if the person knew, or ought to have known the other was intoxicated and unfit.
     These cases, statutes, and legal theories are important to understand when dealing with a drunk driving case, especially when the defendant driver has insufficient income, assets, or insurance coverage. Impleading a third party will bring in another potential source of compensation, which often remains the only available remedy to such unfortunate tragedies.
For more information on drunk driving, click the following links:
National Commission Against Drunk Driving
AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety



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