Drunk Driving Injuries and Dram Shop Liability
Car crash victims are entitled to compensation for injuries caused by careless drivers. Victims of drunk drivers often receive more compensation than people injured in car accidents caused by sober drivers, even when injuries are similar. Drunk driving verdicts typically reflect a community’s sense of outrage when an intoxicated driver risks the lives of other drivers and pedestrians.
Personal injury lawyers understand that jurors might sympathize with an ordinary driver who makes a careless mistake. The same jurors feel no sympathy for drunk drivers. Accident attorneys and insurance adjusters take those attitudes into account when valuing cases for settlement. For that reason, settlements for injuries caused by drunk driving accidents tend to be higher than settlements in comparable accidents caused by drivers who were not under the influence of alcohol.
Dram shop liability
While a drunk driver who causes a crash can be held responsible for the injuries that the accident victims suffer, the driver’s insurance coverage may be inadequate to provide the victim with full compensation. In cases involving a drunk driver who was served alcohol in a tavern or restaurant, the business that provided the alcohol may share responsibility for compensating the accident victims. That extra insurance coverage helps victims receive fair compensation.
Holding a tavern or other liquor supplier responsible for a drunk driver’s intoxication is known as “dram shop” liability. Pennsylvania’s dram shop law allows a business that holds a liquor license to be held accountable for injuries caused by a drunk driver if
- the business served alcohol to the driver when the driver was visibly intoxicated, and
- serving the alcohol contributed to the accident that caused the victim’s injuries.
When there is evidence that a driver with a high blood alcohol concentration was drinking in a tavern or other business that serves alcohol shortly before driving, a careful personal injury attorney will want to investigate the possibility of making a claim for dram shop liability.
Pennsylvania drunk driving injury and death statistics
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reports that almost 80,000 people were injured, and more than 1,000 were killed, in Pennsylvania car crashes during 2014. On average, there are 14 crashes and 9 injuries each hour on Pennsylvania’s roads and highways.
While only 9% of all crashes in Pennsylvania were alcohol-related, DUI accidents accounted for about 28% of all traffic accident deaths. Every day in Pennsylvania, 20 people are injured in alcohol-related crashes.
About three-quarters of all drunk drivers who cause accidents are male. Defendants typically fall within the 21 to 35 years age group. However, about 6.5% of impaired drivers involved in Pennsylvania crashes during 2014 were under the age of 21.
More than 70% of drunk driving crashes take place at night. Just under half of all alcohol-related crashes occur on a Saturday or Sunday. That isn’t surprising, since people are more likely to consume alcohol in the evening and nighttime hours and on weekends.
Types of Drunk Driving Accidents
Most drunk driving accidents involve one motor vehicle crashing into another. Statistics provided by the Pennsylvania DOT shed light on the type of motor vehicles that intoxicated drivers are typically operating when the crash occurs:
- Passenger cars. About 58% of all drunk driving accidents are caused by drivers of passenger cars.
- Light trucks, vans, and SUVs. About 38% of intoxicated drivers involved in crashes are driving SUVs, vans, or light trucks.
- Motorcycles. Only about 3% of crashes involving intoxicated vehicle operators are caused by motorcyclists. However, motorcyclists are involved in only 1.7% of all Pennsylvania crashes. Motorcycle rider involvement in alcohol-related crashes is therefore well above average when compared to other vehicle types.
- Heavy trucks. Strict regulations, employer supervision, and laws that prohibit driving with more than a minimal blood alcohol level discourage most commercial truck drivers from driving under the influence. Drivers of heavy trucks are involved in about 3.5% of accidents overall, but only about 0.4% of alcohol-related crashes.
- Buses. Like other commercial drivers, bus drivers do not typically drive under the influence of alcohol. In 2014, about 0.4% of all Pennsylvania traffic accidents, but only 0.02% of alcohol-related accidents, involved buses.
Regardless of the vehicle that the drunk driver is operating, victims in alcohol-related accidents can include:
- Other drivers.
- Passengers in other vehicles.
- Passengers in the drunk driver’s vehicle.
It is common for the drunk driver to be injured in a crash, particularly when operating a motorcycle. Drunk drivers are often injured in single-vehicle accidents. When drunk drivers crash into another vehicle or person, however, the victim of the accident can experience devastating injuries.
Drunk Driving Accident Injuries
The entire range of injuries that car crash victims experience can be caused in a drunk driving collision. Because drunk drivers are less likely than sober drivers to brake or take evasive action before the accident occurs, however, injuries in alcohol-related crashes tend to be more serious that those sustained in other traffic accidents. Accident outcomes include:
- Death. Drunk drivers are more likely than their victims to die in alcohol-related crashes. The accused accounted for about 61% of the fatalities caused by alcohol-related crashes in Pennsylvania during 2014. Passengers of drunk drivers made up 12% of all deaths in alcohol-related crashes, while other drivers and passengers accounted for about 11% of all fatalities. The remaining victims who died in drunk driving accidents were pedestrians or bicyclists.
- Traumatic brain injury. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycle riders, as well as automobile occupants who are involved in rollover or side-impact accidents, often experience serious head injuries. Brain damage can lead to permanently disabling conditions that affect reasoning, memory, speech, control of bodily functions, and personality.
- Spinal injuries. The most serious nonfatal injuries to the spinal column in a crash caused by a drunk driver lead to paralysis, including paraplegia or quadriplegia. Other spinal injuries can cause weakness in legs, numbness in limbs, and constant back pain.
- Organ injuries. When organ damage is not fatal, accident victims typically require emergency surgery and critical care. Lungs, kidneys, and the spleen are among the organs most commonly injured in nonfatal drunk driving accidents.
- Limb injuries. Broken and amputated arms and legs are among the permanent or long-term injuries caused by drunk driving collisions.
- Joint injuries. Victims of drunk driving accidents may need years of physical therapy to recover from damage to wrists, ankles, knees and elbows. Long-term joint damage from a drunk driving accident may lead to knee replacements or other surgery years after the collision occurs.
- Soft tissue injuries. Torn or stretched ligaments, tendons, and muscles can cause a lifetime of pain and disability. Shoulder, back, and neck injuries make it difficult to move, to work, and to sleep. These injuries are often responsible for a prolonged loss of income and for months or years of painful physical rehabilitation.
A number of other serious injuries are caused by drunk drivers, including eye injuries and facial scarring. Victims also experience severe pain and emotional injuries, including mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life.
Causes of Drunk Driving Accidents
Alcohol affects the body and mind in many ways. Studies demonstrate that, even among experienced drinkers, increased blood alcohol levels correlate with a decreased ability to drive safely. As a general rule, more than one or two drinks per hour puts a driver at risk of causing an accident for any of the following reasons:
- Falling asleep at the wheel. Falling asleep while driving is one of the most common causes of drunk driving collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, alcohol promotes and magnifies drowsiness, causing drivers to fall asleep more easily.
- Delayed reaction times. Driving requires careful attention. Drivers must respond quickly to changing conditions. A deer running across the road, an oncoming car making an unexpected turn across a driver’s lane, and a pedestrian entering a crosswalk are the kinds of hazards that lead to accidents that vigilant drivers may be able to avoid by reacting promptly. Studies have established that even moderate consumption of alcohol delays the brain’s ability to process information and impairs a driver’s ability to react promptly.
- Impaired judgment. Drivers who drink are more likely to make poor decisions. The impaired may decide to “beat a light,” pass on curves, or to take other risks that sober drivers would avoid.
- Impaired vision. As intoxicated drivers become more impaired, an experience of blurred or distorted vision occurs. During this level of influence, drivers are more likely to have difficulty focusing. Alcohol consumption reduces visual acuity by as much as 32%. Even drinking a single can of beer can affect visual acuity. That’s one explanation for drunk drivers who stray across a center line.
- Loss of concentration. Driving carefully requires the ability to focus on the road. Intoxication makes drivers more likely to focus on the wrong thing, such as tuning the radio or looking at scenery. Distractions are one of the main causes of DUI accidents when drivers take focus off the road and surroundings.
- Loss of comprehension. Intoxicated drivers are more likely to become confused when something unexpected happens. The flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, newly installed road hazard signs, or a disabled vehicle in the traffic lane are examples of information that an intoxicated driver’s brain might be slow to process.
- Loss of coordination. Driving requires a certain amount of coordination, beginning with fitting the key into the ignition. Intoxicated drivers may step on the accelerator when meaning to step on the brake. Impaired judgement and delayed reactions also affect steering around corners, or veering into the middle of a traffic lane.
Even a mild-to-moderate level of intoxication can produce momentary lapses that lead to serious injuries. Law-abiding drivers need to be alert, particularly at night, keeping in mind that the sober may be sharing the road with the impaired.
How to Respond to a Drunk Driving Accident
If you are in an accident, the driver who caused the accident could have been under the influence of alcohol. The police will need to make that determination. There might be a suspicion based on events leading up to the accident. After the accident, the driver may speak to you and exhibits signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech or poor balance. Alert the responding officer to any suspicions you may have.
If you are injured in a crash and believe the accident was caused by a drunk driver, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Call 9-1-1 immediately and request for police assistance. Mention your suspicion that the other driver is intoxicated. If there is any possibility that you sustained a serious injury, ask for an ambulance.
- Stay in your car until help arrives. If you have a head, neck, or back injury, moving increases the risk of making the injury worse if you try to move without professional assistance.
- Do not move your car, even if it is drivable. The police may want to take photographs, take measurements, or make a diagram before any vehicles are moved.
- If paramedics help you out of the vehicle and do not immediately place you in an ambulance, take note of the surroundings. Take pictures of the accident scene, of all vehicles involved in the collision, and of anyone who may have witnessed the accident.
- If the other driver tries to communicate with you before the police arrive, politely say that you want to talk to the police before discussing anything else. If the driver appears to have been drinking, make sure the police are informed immediately.
- It the driver leaves the scene, try to get the license number and a description of the vehicle. Rather than waiting for the police, call 9-1-1 again and report the current situation. A drunk driver who is fleeing the scene poses a risk to other drivers that the police will need to know about immediately.
- Seek medical attention if there are serious injuries. If you are not taken to a hospital by ambulance, consider going to an emergency room or urgent care center for an immediate checkup. Do not be shy about reporting all symptoms, including any pain you are feeling.
- Follow through on medical care. Failure to report can jeopardize the ability to obtain the deserving compensation if you do not follow your doctor’s advice. Keep all appointments, see all recommended specialists, and do not discontinue physical therapy until discharged.
- Talk to a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible after leaving the emergency room. A personal injury attorney can recommend and advise on protecting your rights while maximizing the compensation can be awarded for these injuries.
Your attorney will advise on how to deal with the drunk driver’s insurance adjuster. If an insurance adjuster calls or visits before the ability to see a personal injury lawyer, tell the adjuster you need to obtain legal advice before making any statement. Be polite but firm, even if the adjuster is aggressive in seeking answers to questions.
Remember that it takes time to settle a personal injury case. Understand the full extent of your injuries before settling or discussing settlements. An attorney will want to see how your healing progresses before evaluating a case for settlement. A permanent injury may not be known for several months. Obtain legal advice promptly so that you do not lose the right to seek compensation by letting too much time pass.