Accidents Caused by Drinking & Driving
“Don’t drink and drive” is a simple rule. Everyone has heard it. Many of our children learn the rule long before they ever take the wheel.
But too many adults aren’t listening.
Drunk driving is a problem that affects all of us. Two out of three Americans will be involved in a DUI crash in their lifetimes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving(“MADD”). Every two hours, three people are killed in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s a problem we can’t hide from—because the next victim could be us or someone we love. That’s a large motivator for why an aggressive Georgia drunk driving lawyer will pursue drunk drivers who cause car crashes.
Are Drunk Drivers Liable for Punitive Damages?
Short answer: yes. Georgia juries are authorized to impose punitive damages against drunk drivers. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1; Moore v. Thompson, 255 Ga. 236, 237-38 (1985).
Most states, including Georgia, provide criminal penalties for drunk drivers—i.e., drivers who are “less safe” because they are under the influence of alcohol or whose blood alcohol concentration exceeds 0.08. See O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391. But too often, those criminal penalties aren’t enough. For instance, fifty to seventy-five percent of drunk drivers whose driver’s license is suspended continue driving anyway, according to MADD. In addition to facing criminal charges, drunk drivers can (and should) be held financially responsible for the damage they cause.
In a drunk driving case, the at-fault driver’s record may come back to haunt him. In most car accident cases, the at-fault driver’s driving record is not admissible and cannot be mentioned in front of the jury. That’s because it often constitutes inadmissible “character evidence” under Georgia law. But in a drunk driving lawsuit, the rule is different. Because punitive damages are available, the jury has to decide whether the at-fault driver’s actions were so bad that in addition to awarding compensatory damages (i.e., money to compensate the victim for what he or she has been through), they should also impose punitive damages (i.e., damages to punish the at-fault driver). Georgia’s courts have held that when deciding whether to impose punitive damages, the jury can consider the at-fault driver’s other episodes of drunk driving if any.
Here’s a fact that even some car accident lawyers haven’t picked up on in a drunk driving trial, the injured party can introduce into evidence (i.e., can tell the jury about) not only the at-fault driver’s previous DUIs but also any subsequent episodes of drinking and driving. That’s because whether the jury chooses to impose punitive damages will depend on the at-fault driver’s state of mind. Specifically, it depends on whether the at-fault driver was consciously indifferent to the consequences of his or her actions. Courts have reasoned that if a driver continues to drive drunk even after injuring someone, that shows that the driver was indifferent to the consequences of his drinking and driving. Langlois v. Wolford, 246 Ga. App. 209, 214 (2000). In the language of Georgia’s appellate courts, subsequent drinking and driving show that the at-fault driver “did not even change this wanton conduct after the accident.” Craig v. Holsey, 264 Ga. App. 344, 347 (2003).
In most car accident cases, the amount of punitive damages is “capped” by Georgia law at $250,000. But again in drunk driving cases, the rule is different. Georgia’s legislature has established that if “the defendant acted or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol, drugs other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with the prescription, or any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to that degree that his or her judgment is substantially impaired,” then there is no cap on punitive damages. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f). In other words, if the at-fault driver was drunk or under the influence of drugs, then the $250,000 cap on punitive damages does not apply to that driver.
Drunk Driving Settlements & Trials
We talk a lot about trials at our firm. That’s because whether your goal is to take your drunk driving case to trial or obtain a settlement before then, your lawyer’s plan should be the same: prepare for trial. Insurance companies don’t pay out settlement money out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because they realize you’re ready for trial, and they know that if they allow your case to reach a jury, they’re going to lose badly. So whether you want a settlement or a trial, your strategy is the same: prepare the case for trial.
Being ready for trial leads to more favorable settlements. For example, our firm handled a drunk driving accident case against a dentist who we suspected might have had a drinking problem. We obtained a subpoena and then obtained a copy of the dentist’s driving record. It turned out that we were right—this dentist had quite a history, including seven DUIs! Once the insurance company realized that we had obtained the evidence and we knew how to use it, the insurance company became eager to resolve the case. Our client was very pleased with the settlement.
A good Georgia motor vehicle accident lawyer knows how to handle a drinking-and-driving accident. We have obtained many settlements in drunk driving accidents, but we’re also perfectly willing to take the cases to trial. We think that’s important because if your lawyer isn’t willing or isn’t able to try a case, the insurance company is going to figure that out and will offer only a lowball settlement amount. We have taken these cases to trial and won, as the video clips below show.
How Long Do I Have to File a Drinking-and-Driving Lawsuit?
The types of drunk driving cases that our firm handles are personal injury cases brought on behalf of injured victims, and the general Georgia rule for personal injury lawsuits applies. That means that in general, the victim of a drunk driving accident has two years to file his or her claim with the court. See O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33.
In practice, however, the time limit is almost always longer. That is because, under Georgia law, the time limit for the filing of the case (i.e., the “statute of limitations”) is tolled (i.e., paused) during the period during which the drunk driver is facing criminal prosecution, for a period of up to six years. To quote the law exactly, the time available for the victim to file the case is paused “from the date of the commission of the alleged crime or the act giving rise to such action in tort until the prosecution of such crime or act has become final or otherwise terminated, provided that such time does not exceed six years.” See O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99. Since drunk drivers who cause car crashes and injure people are usually prosecuted, that means that the two-year limitations period normally does not begin to run until after the criminal prosecution of the at-fault driver is completed or until six years have passed, whichever is shorter.
An example helps to explain how this works. Imagine that on January 1, 2020, a drunk driver named Dave crashed into an innocent driver named Penelope, injuring her. Imagine that the State of Georgia brings a criminal case against Dave, and Dave pleads guilty on January 1, 2021. Dave’s guilty plea ends the criminal case against him. The two-year period during which Penelope has to file her drunk driving accident case starts running (in other words, her two-year clock starts ticking) when Dave pleads guilty, but not before. Therefore, Penelope has until January 1, 2023, to file her drunk driving accident case with the court.
This rule makes sense because often, evidence about the drunk driving accident is not available until the criminal case is over. For example, the most important evidence about the accident itself may be the body camera videos or dash camera videos from the police officers who investigated the accident, since that video can show how drunk the at-fault driver was. For example, the camera footage might show Dave (the at-fault driver) stumbling or slurring his words. Other important evidence could include the results of field sobriety tests or toxicology tests from the Georgia Crime Lab. Often, this evidence would be in the custody of the police officers, the prosecutor, or the State of Georgia. This evidence might not be made available to Penelope (the injured victim) until after the criminal case against Dave is over. Therefore, the law says that the period that Penelope has to file her drunk driving injury lawsuit does not begin until the criminal prosecution against Dave has ended. That way, Penelope has the full two years to evaluate the evidence with her lawyer and, if she chooses, attempt to settle the case before filing it with the court.
The limitations period can be longer than two years in another way as well. Georgia law recognizes a special type of claim for spouses of injured people. If the injuries from a drunk driving accident are so severe that they affect a person’s relationship with his or her spouse, then the husband or wife may have a claim for “loss of consortium” against the drunk driver. A spouse with a valid claim for loss of consortium may be compensated for the way the marital relationship changed, taking into account things like the sexual relationship between the couple and the injured person’s ability to provide emotional support or do household chores. In Georgia, the limitations period for loss-of-consortium claims is four years. See O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33.
What is a Dram Shop Lawsuit?
When an injured motorist is victimized by a drunk driver, a knowledgeable Georgia drunk driving lawyer will know to investigate the events leading up to the crash. What is a dram shop lawsuit? In a dram shop case, a personal injury lawyer will bring a lawsuit on behalf of an injured victim against a bar or restaurant because the establishment negligently over-served a noticeably intoxicated customer and knew or should have known that the customer would soon be driving. When a bar keeps selling alcohol to someone that the bar knows is about to drive and who is either already noticeably drunk or is a minor, then the bar has responsibility for that drunk driver’s reckless actions. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-40.
While some states have separate statutes for dram shop liability and social host liability depending on whether the alcohol provider is a business or private individual, Georgia combines both theories of liability into one dram shop statute. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-40. If a Georgia drunk driving lawyer can show that the employees of the bar or business should have known or should have been aware that the consumer was noticeably intoxicated and was about to drive, then the injured motorist will have a claim against the bar for negligently over-serving the driver.
Though most businesses licensed to sell alcohol have a general liability insurance policy protecting the business from fires and floods, these insurance policies sometimes exclude dram shop liability. Most insurance carriers require businesses to purchase an “alcohol liability rider” to cover dram shop claims. As a top Georgia drunk driving lawyer that residents can count on, we know how the legal system works and how to navigate the insurance process.
A dram shop lawsuit requires serious investigation. Knowledgeable and smart lawyers take steps to ensure that evidence is preserved. A good personal injury lawyer should track down employees, staff, and customers who have first-hand knowledge of the night’s events leading up to the crash. In some cases, experts trained in pharmacology and chemistry can help determine how the drunk driver’s blood alcohol level affected the driver’s behavior. We understand these things.
The consequences of drinking and driving can be tragic. If you or someone you love has been hurt by a drunk driver, the damage probably can’t be undone. But you can fight back. Talk to a top Georgia drunk driving attorney at 404-JUSTICE.