Car accident victims who are injured by drunk drivers often find it easier to prove their claims than victims of other types of car accidents. Nevertheless, certain complications can arise, particularly if you live in a “no-fault” auto insurance state. Your options depend largely on where the accident occurred.
“Fault” States vs. “No-Fault” States
38 states can be classified as “fault” jurisdictions, while 12 states and the District of Columbia can be classified as “no-fault” jurisdictions. In a “fault” state, you can file a claim directly against a drunk driver’s auto liability insurance policy or, alternatively, you can file a lawsuit directly against the drunk driver. In a no-fault state, you are generally expected to file a claim against your own Personal Injury Protection (PIP) policy, and you cannot file an adversarial insurance claim or a personal injury lawsuit unless you qualify for an exclusion to the “no-fault” restrictions. In particular, the lack of ability to file a lawsuit means you can’t claim damages for “pain and suffering”.
Exclusion from the “No-Fault” Restrictions
If an exclusion applies, even “no-fault” states allow you to claim against the other driver’s insurance carrier or sue the other driver. The exact content of these exclusions vary from state to state; however, a typical exclusion might allow you to escape the “no-fault” restrictions if your medical bills exceed your PIP policy’s coverage limits or if your injuries were “serious” as defined by the applicable state statute. Catastrophic injuries frequently qualify for exclusions.
Summary of Options
If the accident occurred in a “fault” state, you must choose between either filing a claim against the drink driver’s liability insurance policy or filing a lawsuit (or filing a claim and threatening to sue if the insurance company fails to offer an adequate settlement). If the accident occurred in a “no-fault” state, determine whether or not an exclusion applies. If no exclusion applies (or if the accident was “hit and run”), file a claim with your PIP insurance company. If an exclusion does apply, select from the same two options available to you in “fault” states.
A DUI Convictions as Evidence of Negligence
If the drink driver is eventually convicted of DUI, you will enjoy a reasonably clear path to winning an insurance settlement or a courtroom verdict. Most states will consider the drunk driver’s violation of the DUI law as “negligence per se” (automatic negligence), requiring you to establish only causation and the amount of your damages in order to win a judgment.
Insurance companies know how easy it is to win a personal injury lawsuit against a convicted drunk driver, and they know that sympathetic juries often award out-of-proportion damages to victims, which is why they can be cooperative with a claimant under these circumstances. For this reason, if the driver is convicted of DUI, you should consider filing a claim against the drunk driver’s insurance company (assuming you are not barred from doing so by no-fault rules).
“Preponderance of the Evidence” vs. “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
What if the drunk driver is acquitted of DUI or plea bargains his way into a reduced charge? Even then, all is not lost by any means. Since the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction is the stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, and since the standard of proof required to win a civil lawsuit is the much more relaxed “preponderance of evidence” standard (a 51% likelihood), you can still win a lawsuit against a drunk driver even if he is acquitted in criminal court.
Injuries caused by drunk drivers can raise complex and ambiguous legal issues that require the assistance of a personal injury attorney to adequately resolve. For that reason, if you or a loved one has been seriously injured by a drunk driver, retaining an experienced personal injury lawyer is usually the first thing to do after receiving medical treatment.