What if I'm injured as a passenger in a car that was hit by a drunk driver?

Auto Accident
Passenger Victims of Drunk Drivers

Whenever an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, he or she puts everybody else on or near the roadway at risk. A drunk driver is much more likely to be in a collision and often those collisions result in significant injuries and death to passengers, other motorists and pedestrians.

As a Los Angeles car accident lawyer, I have seen first-hand how drunk drivers impact the lives of their victims and their victims’ families including the passengers in the drivers’ own vehicle.

Even if the criminal court system prosecutes drunk drivers to the fullest extent of the law, criminal convictions will not fully compensate victims who were injured as a result of such a conscious disregard of others. That fact is especially disheartening if the victim was injured as a passenger. Another driver might be able to avoid or otherwise diminish the force of an impact with a drunk driver. A passenger can't do anything except duck and cover if that's at all possible.

Proving the negligence of a drunk driver

Negligence per se can occur when a person is guilty of a violation of law that's meant to protect the general public, and protection of the general public is exactly what drunk driving laws are all about. In California, for purposes of showing negligence per se, section 669 of the California Evidence Code requires proof of the following three elements:

  • The defendant violated a statute or ordinance
  • That violation was the proximate cause of the claimant's injury or death
  • The statute or ordinance was designed to protect the public from that kind of occurrence

When a drunk driver's violation of a statute or ordinance proximately causes injuries to a person, negligence per se can be established.

Although compensation for injuries suffered by the victim of a drunk driver isn't within the purview of the criminal courts, civil courts allow victims to seek a damages award against drunk drivers. Those damages might consist of:

  • Past and future medical bills
  • Past and future lost earnings
  • Any permanent disfigurement
  • Any permanent disability
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of a normal life
  • Funeral and burial costs in the event of a wrongful death

Punitive damages awarded to passengers of drunk drivers

The victim might also be allowed to seek punitive damages from the intoxicated driver who caused the crash. It's well established law in California that an injured person is allowed to seek punitive damages from a drunk driver as a result of the drunk driver's conscious disregard for the safety of others. The purpose of those punitive damages is to deter others from driving if they're also under the influence. Insurance companies don't pay punitive damages awards though. The passenger would need to collect those damages directly from the drunk driver.

The burden of proof against a drunk driver

In a criminal case, the prosecution has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil cases have a lower burden of proof. A claimant need only prove negligence by a preponderance of the evidence. That lesser burden of proof means that the claimant's version of the facts was more likely true than not true.

The possible case against the passenger's drunk driver

Face reality. If you are a passenger in a motor vehicle, it is highly likely that the driver is a family member or friend. We are all apprehensive about filing a claim or lawsuit against a family member or friend, but if a passenger was severely injured, the insurance policy of their driver might be considered for purposes of helping to cover damages. That should be strongly considered if the drunk driver was uninsured or underinsured. The passenger might even have a right of recovery under his or her own auto insurance.

No comparative negligence

Rarely does a passenger in a motor vehicle crash suffer injuries through his or her own fault. The law recognizes this reality. That places a passenger in a favorable legal position.

Do I need an attorney?

Preserve and protect the evidence and your rights. If you were a passenger in a motor vehicle, and you were injured as a result of the carelessness and negligence of a drunk or even a sober driver, contact an experienced injury lawyer for a free consultation and case evaluation. For more information, feel free to visit my page on punitive damages in California or my comprehensive car accident page.

This article was submitted by Allen Vaysberg, Esq., who manages the personal injury practice of the Law Offices of Steers & Associates in Los Angeles, CA. For more information about Allen, please visit his profile.

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