Drunk driving, or driving under the influence (DUI), is one of the single most dangerous actions one can be guilty of without malice being a factor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports approximately 9,900 fatalities in alcohol-related crashes in 2014 (the most recent available data), and while this is a decrease from previous years, it is still far too high. Understandably, given that the cost in lives, time and money is so high, civil and criminal punishment for driving under the influence can be extremely high. If you have been injured by a drunk driver, there are multiple legal theories that you may be able to use to make your case and receive compensation that can help pay the bills.
In a civil suit, perhaps the most common theory under which drunk drivers are sued is that of negligence law. If you want to try and prove that you were harmed due to a drunk driver’s negligence, there are four things you must be able to prove to the court:
That a duty of care existed between you and the drunk driver (in other words, that the driver had an obligation to exercise reasonable care in interacting with others on the road, as did you);
- That the duty was breached;
- That the breach happened solely because of the drunk driver’s conduct, with no other intervening cause; and
- That you suffered tangible harm (not necessarily physical, but tangible; something more substantial than a mild shock or cuts and bruises).
Florida common law does establish a duty of care between motorists, requiring that everyone exercise reasonable care with regard to others on the road, but beyond that, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to show that the duty was breached exclusively due to the defendant’s conduct. This can be difficult in a lot of respects, especially if other potential causes are present – for example, if the weather was inclement, many times it might be alleged that the slick roads caused the accident, rather than any impairment of the defendant’s.
In other states, it is sometimes possible to allege third-party liability for your injuries by bringing suit against the bar or other establishment that permitted the driver to become so intoxicated. However, Florida law does not permit such a cause of action unless one of two exceptions applies: if the person served is either a minor, or is known to be “habitually addicted” to drinking alcohol. If a person becomes intoxicated at a public establishment and then drives drunk, the bar cannot be held liable.
Negligence Per Se
One other often-used method of showing negligence on the part of a drunk driver dovetails with any criminal prosecution that may be undertaken. If a driver is convicted of DUI, that conviction is proof under Florida jurisprudence that a law has been broken. A legal theory called negligence per se exists in state civil law, and it holds that if a civil plaintiff can show that the defendant’s conduct broke a relevant criminal law, it establishes negligence per se – that is, conduct that violates a statute is automatically deemed to be negligent. This means that if the driver who hit you is found guilty of driving under the influence, that conviction is all you would need to establish civil negligence. Once civil negligence has been established, a defendant can be held liable for injuries the plaintiff has incurred.
It is important to keep in mind that negligence per se is not a usable theory if the drunk driver is not convicted in criminal court, because without that conviction, you have no legal proof that a statute has been violated. It does not mean that you have no case – merely that you would have to build a case the old-fashioned way, by establishing each of the previously discussed four criteria. It may be more time consuming, but given the severity and prevalence of alleged drunk driving, Florida courts generally give plaintiffs reasonable indulgence in proving their cases as long as all is above-board.
Engage An Experienced DUI Lawyer
Being struck by a drunk driver can be a terrifying ordeal to go through, not least of all because of the medical bills incurred in the incident. You need a fighter to ensure your rights are protected. The Fort Lauderdale DUI attorneys at the Law Office of Joseph J. Lorusso, P.A. are ready, willing and able to assist you in obtaining a result that makes you as whole as can be. Contact our office today at 954-715-3260 to set up an initial consultation.