Drunk driving remains a serious issue and a threat to drivers and their passengers in Virginia and across the nation. According to 2017 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, twelve alcohol-related crashes happened daily on average. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures suggest that one third of individuals can expect to be involved in a drunk driving accident at some point.
What happens when you have been hit and injured by the negligence of a drunk car or truck driver? Can you sue the driver? The short answer is “yes,” but, you must understand what to expect and how to proceed. Drunk driving cases can be complicated by a litany of variables, which is why so many drunk driving crash survivors speak with car accident lawyer in the months following their collisions.
The Role of Criminal and Civil Courts in Drunk Driving Cases
Driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or more is illegal in Virginia. A driver who is presumed or proven to be intoxicated will face criminal charges, even if they refuse to take a Breathalyzer test. Depending upon many factors, the driver can expect to be fined, face a license suspension, and possibly go to jail.
Criminal courts exist to penalize drunk drivers for their irresponsible decisions. Nevertheless, criminal courts will not compel drivers or their insurance companies to compensate other drivers or passengers who were hurt due to their negligence: that job falls to the civil courts.
A civil court handles civil suits, such as personal injury suits filed against a drunk driver. The civil court hears the case and decides if the plaintiff should receive compensation. Civil courts usually admit prior DUI convictions from criminal courts as evidence to come to a final verdict.
Should You Immediately File a Lawsuit Against a Drunk Driver?
Knowing more about criminal and civil courts, you may assume that you should work with your car accident lawyer to file a civil lawsuit right away. This may not be necessary. First, you should seek to file a third-party claim through the drunk driver’s insurance carrier.
The drunk driver’s insurance carrier may want to work with you to come to a settlement offer quickly, especially if the drunk driver has been charged and convicted. This does not mean the settlement offer will be fair, though. Insurance adjusters want to settle for the lowest amount they can.
If a settlement offer seems low, your suspicions may be correct. In that event, contact a car accident lawyer to get advice before accepting any settlement. Remember that once you accept a third-party settlement offer, you are bound by the agreement and usually cannot file a lawsuit later.
What About Filing a Claim with Your Auto Insurance Policy?
Virginia does not require you to file a first-party claim with your auto insurance carrier if you have been in an accident with a drunk driver. It may be wise to do so if you carry coverage protecting you against uninsured or underinsured motorists. That way you can recover some money, although it may not be enough to cover the full amount of your losses. Medical bills can be hefty, particularly if you require surgery, need to be seen by specialists, or have a long recovery period.
When you have exhausted your third-party and first-party insurance claim options, you may want to move on to filing a personal injury lawsuit.
How Does a Lawsuit Against a Drunk Driver Work?
After you or a loved one are injured by an impaired driver, you have the right to file a lawsuit with the Virginia civil courts as long as one of these three statements is true:
- The drunk driver had a verified BAC of 0.15 or greater (twice the legal limit.)
- The drunk driver should have reasonably understood that he or she was impaired.
- The drunk driver’s impairment directly caused injury to you or your loved one.
You should know that if the criminal courts already convicted the drunk driver on all counts, the conviction should be enough to prove at least one of the aforementioned statements.
Though you can start a lawsuit against a drunk driver on your own, partnering with a lawyer can lead to higher settlement offers or court awards. It can also free you up to concentrate on recovering. Plus, your lawyer will be responsible for meeting all court deadlines, such as the two-year statute of limitation for starting your personal injury lawsuit.
What Kind of Damages Could You Receive in a Drunk Driving Lawsuit?
When you launch a lawsuit against a drunk driver who caused you serious injuries, you might wonder how much of a settlement you can expect to receive. The amount will depend on everything from your out-of-pocket costs to the extent of your injuries.
For instance, a drunk driving lawsuit will include compensatory damages for everything from lost wages and unpaid hospital bills to pain and suffering. For example, if you used to play a sport but can no longer enjoy athletics because of lifelong injuries suffered during the crash, your new limitations will be factored into your compensatory damages.
Your lawsuit may also include something called “punitive damages.” In Virginia, courts may require drunk drivers to pay up to $350,000 in punitive damages. “Punitive” refers to punishment, meaning that punitive damages are an added penalty levied against the drunk driver for their negligence. Compensatory damages are covered by the drunk driver’s insurance carrier but punitive damages are expected to be paid by the drunk driver.
Punitive damages can be more difficult to receive than compensatory damages. Again, this is why many injured accident survivors turn to car accident lawyers with long track records of winning both compensatory and punitive damages for their clients in cases against intoxicated drivers.
What If You Contributed to the Accident?
Good drivers can make mistakes. What happens if you get into an accident with a drunk driver but are partly to blame? You can still file a third-party claim and a lawsuit, if appropriate.
Virginia follows the rule of comparative negligence. The rule allows you to be compensated as long as you were not more than 50 percent responsible for the accident. Any damages you receive will be lowered by your percentage of fault.
Maybe you receive damages from a civil court of $200,000 but are found 40 percent responsible. The $200,000 will be reduced by 40 percent and you will receive $120,000 instead of the larger amount.
How Can You Make a Strong Case Against a Drunk Driver?
Having the right evidence can make all the difference in the outcome of any lawsuit, including a case against a drunk driver who injured you or someone you care about. Even if you hire a car or truck accident lawyer to handle your lawsuit, you can help provide documentation to strengthen your chances of recovering fair damages or compelling a reasonable settlement offer from an insurance company.
Below are a few ways you can ensure that your case starts on strong footing:
- Collect evidence at the scene of the accident. If you are able, take photos and video immediately after your crash. Do not assume that someone else will do this. Capturing everything “in the moment” preserves key information that could be useful later.
- Get seen by a medical professional immediately. Not sure if you were hurt or not? Go to an emergency room or urgent care facility anyway. You may have injuries that are not evident, such as concussion or whiplash. The longer you delay medical treatment, the higher the likelihood the drunk driver’s insurance company will assert that your injuries were not crash-related.
- Go to all your appointments and keep your statements. It can be challenging to pay for medical expenses, especially if you are in a tight financial situation. Keep attending your appointments, and ask your healthcare providers if they can work on a payment plan for you. If you routinely miss your checkups or sessions, the opposing side may conclude you are not really hurt after all.
- Keep track of missed wages and days on the job. Did you have to miss work for several days or weeks? Were you so injured that you ended up losing your employment? Get documentation to support what happened. Even if you had paid time off and did not lose your job, you deserve to be compensated for the days you were unable to work because you were recovering.
- Consider seeing a therapist. It can be challenging to prove pain and suffering in court. One method of supporting the idea that you have been under emotional distress is to begin going to a counselor or therapist.
Above all else, take your health and your future seriously. Focus your attention on getting well but ensure that you collect all potential evidence to buoy your case.
A Virginia Beach Truck Accident Lawyer at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC Can Help Drunk Driving Accident Survivors Collect Damages
Are you considering suing a drunk driver in Virginia? Get a better understanding of your case by talking to a Virginia Beach car accident lawyer at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC. Call 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. From our office in Virginia Beach, we serve clients in Hampton, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Eastern Shore.