A Complex Issue: Analyzing Liability in a Drunk Driving Accident

Driving under the influence of alcohol not only risks the driver’s life, but it can also have heavy financial and emotional tolls upon its victims when an accident occurs. In personal injury cases involving drunk drivers, liability may extend beyond the driver. Generally, a drunk driver who causes a wreck has very little chance of escaping full liability. While liability may be fairly clear, actually recover might not be as certain.

As a no-fault jurisdiction, Pennsylvania requires you to have insurance to cover your medical expenses and lost wages. Your injuries may exceed the limits of your policy or be considered “serious,” at which point you will probably need to take legal action to obtain the compensation needed to pay for your medical bills and wages lost due to your inability to work.

If you sue the intoxicated driver that caused the accident, keep in mind that this individual may not even have the insurance coverage you need. To get you as full as possible compensation, a personal injury attorney at our firm may be able to pursue the person or establishment that served the drunk driver that caused the wreck if liquor liability laws apply.

What Are Dram Shop Laws?

Unlike in a few other states, Pennsylvania’s dram shop laws are not a path to automatic liability for establishments that serve alcohol to a drunk driver. Under the statute, an establishment faces responsibility for serving a “visibly intoxicated” motorist. Instances in which a personal injury attorney might show that the driver was visibly intoxicated include:

  • Slurred speech
  • The inability to walk in a generally straight line or maintain normal balance while walking;
  • Drowsiness
  • Trouble holding a beverage glass or other items
  • Belligerent or loud talk
  • Fighting or provoking fights while or after consuming alcohol

Pennsylvania also imposes upon establishments “negligence per se” liability for violations of the state’s liquor laws. Proof that the establishment provided alcohol to someone under the age of 21, was acting noticeably intoxicated or erratic, was habitually drunk, or had a history of “untempered habits” could establish negligence regardless of whether the driver was “visibly intoxicated.”

Whether you rely upon the driver being “visibly intoxicated” or negligence per se, you must show the establishment’s actions proximately caused your injuries. As such, the furnishing of alcohol must have caused the crash and the event must have been foreseeable to the establishment. For example, an establishment could avoid liability if the vehicle of the drunk driver had breaks that failed or a tire punctured by an unforeseen item in the road. In these cases, a court could find that the accident could have happened without alcohol being a factor.

Liability for Social Hosts

Certain drunk drivers who leave a private party at a home or social club may render the host responsible for your injuries. By contrast to dram shop laws, you may have a social host claim only if the driver was a minor. This means that, if a social host served even a visibly intoxicated person who was at least age 21, you have no claim based on social host liability.

If social host liability presents itself, you or a personal injury attorney may present a claim to the host’s homeowners insurance. Many such policies contain coverage for liability arising from actions within the home.

Punitive Damages

Drunk driving cases may lend themselves to punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages, which seek to make the injured person as whole as possible, punitive damages punish the tortfeasor.

Pennsylvania courts can award punitive damages where a defendant acts with reckless indifference to the safety or rights of others, such as when an individual gets behind the wheel while intoxicated. Most are well aware that driving under the influence of alcohol places motorists and pedestrians at considerable risk of injury or death. If a host or alcohol establishment’s employee acted negligently, punitive damages may present themselves in dram shop or social host liability cases.

Obtaining Legal Representation

If you’re injured by a drunk driver, the attorneys at Marciano & MacAvoy can evaluate whether you have a claim against an establishment or a host who provided the alcohol. To that end, we will need the police report that might explain the actions and whereabouts of the drunk driver. The crash report will show the age of the driver. With that information, we can assess who might be liable, how we can establish responsibility and the source of any commercial liability or insurance coverage that can pay your damages so you can focus on healing.

Contact Marciano at MacAvoy at (215) 960-0789  for a free consultation and help protecting your rights to fair compensation.

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