Drunk driving accidents can turn your world upside-down. This is true whether you are the alleged drunk driver or a victim of the accident. Victims of drunk driving accidents have the option of filing a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages for physical, emotional, and psychological injuries they sustain. In some cases, the drunk driver who caused the accident and your injuries may be charged with a crime. If that driver is convicted of a crime related to the drunk driving accident, it can be it easier for the victim to recover compensation in a personal injury lawsuit.
Most personal injury lawsuits are brought on the theory that one person’s negligence (the defendant) resulted in another person’s injury (the plaintiff). It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to prove that the defendant:
- was negligent, and
- that negligence was a substantial factor in the injuries he or she sustained.
When the defendant in a civil lawsuit for personal injury damages is convicted for drunk driving it becomes much easier for the plaintiff to satisfy his or her burden of proof.
Let’s imagine that you are involved in a car accident which injures another person. You were intoxicated at the time of the crash. The other driver suffers serious bodily injuries and damage to their car. The costs and expenses they incur are more than they can handle on their own, so they decide to file a personal injury lawsuit for damages against you.
Generally, that other driver would be required to establish:
- You had a responsibility to drive safely and prevent reasonable harm to others on the road,
- You breached this responsibility, and
- They suffered an injury because of this breach.
The first element is fairly simple to establish, because whenever you operate a vehicle on a public road you assume an obligation to follow traffic laws and use caution to prevent harm. The third element may also be fairly simple to establish: if not for the accident, the other person would not have been injured.
Note: causation can be tricky in some cases, but an experienced personal injury attorney will know the best way to establish this essential element.
The second element – the breach of duty – can be difficult to establish. The other driver would be responsible for proving that you did something that either:
- broke a law that was designed to prevent the type of injury they suffered, or
- simply failed to drive in a safe way.
If you are charged and convicted of a drunk driving offense it becomes much easier for the plaintiff in your civil cause to establish this second element. This is because many states will accept evidence of a criminal conviction as proof that a person breached their duty of care. When the plaintiff uses your criminal conviction for a drunk driving offense as proof of negligence in a civil case, they are presenting the court with evidence you were negligent per se.
Civil and criminal cases generally have no bearing on one another. So why would your conviction in a separate criminal case have any impact on your civil case? The burden of proof in a criminal proceeding is much greater than the burden of proof in a civil case.
In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove that you are guilty of each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Failure to establish this burden will prevent you from being convicted of a crime. In a civil case, the plaintiff is only required to prove that you are guilty by a preponderance of the evidence. Since the burden of proof is so much greater in a criminal case it is acceptable to use that verdict in a civil hearing.
If you are involved in a drunk driving accident it is important to understand that the verdict in a criminal matter can affect your liability in a civil matter. The best way to limit your criminal and civil liability after a drunk driving accident is by contacting and enlisting the professional assistance of a criminal defense attorney and a personal injury attorney for each of your cases.
About the Author: Attorney Gus Kostopoulos is a former prosecutor and owner of Kostopoulos Law Group.