Know Your Rights: Suing a drunken driver for injuries they caused

Everyone knows the devastation that a drunk driving accident can cause. Although the rate of drunk driving fatalities has declined by about 18% since 2000 — partly because of the introduction of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft — one-third of all traffic fatalities in the United States still involve drunk driving. That’s 10,000 deaths per year.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Missouri had the 8th greatest decrease in drunk-driving fatality rates of all states, from 2000 (432 fatalities) to 2017 (254 fatalities), for a total decrease of 41.20%. Kansas ranked 21st in the country in largest decrease of drunk-driving fatality rate from 2000 (135 fatalities) to 2017 (102 fatalities) for a total decrease of 24.44%.

Nevertheless, drunk driving fatalities are an ongoing concern in Missouri and Kansas. That is why the personal injury attorneys at Foster Wallace are dedicated to representing victims who are injured or killed in car accidents caused by the reckless negligence of a drunk driver.

Here are things you should know about suing a drunk driver for injuries they caused you:

1. There are Criminal and Civil Consequences for Drunk Driving.

If you or a loved one have been injured by a drunk driver, it is important to understand that there are two different kinds of laws that apply to your case, and each kind of law involves a different court process. These are criminal laws, which are applied in the criminal court process, and “tort” laws, which apply in the civil court process.

2. Missouri and Kansas Treat Civil Liability for Drunk Driving Differently.

In terms of criminal law, Missouri and Kansas treat drunk driving the same—it is a crime in either state to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content over the prescribed limit. If you do this, you will have committed a crime and will go through the criminal process described above. You do not even have to have struck or injured someone with your vehicle. You commit the crime simply by operating the vehicle while you are legally drunk. However, if you do drive drunk and injure or kill someone, you may be charged with another crime (negligent homicide) that will subject you to another punishment. The specific punishments in Missouri and Kansas (and all states) may be different, but it is a crime to drive drunk in both states.

In terms of tort law, Missouri and Kansas treat the liability for injuring someone by drunk driving differently in some respects. Here are two examples:

In Missouri, if someone injures you or kills one of your family members because they were driving drunk, you can raise a civil claim (a tort) not only against the drunk driver who injured you, but you also may sue someone who contributed to their illegal action, such as by providing them alcohol or encouraging them to drive even though they were drunk. In Kansas, however, claims against such other parties are not available to you.

In both Missouri and Kansas you may be entitled to punitive damages (damages beyond the cost of your injuries, medical care, etc.) when the drunk driver acted particularly egregious or carelessly by driving drunk. Although the two states have a different standard for the type of conduct that warrants punitive damages, punitive damages are available in both states. However, Kansas puts a limit on the amount of punitive damages you may receive, whereas Missouri does not.

3. A Drunk Driver Who Injures You Is Liable for Damages.

Even if a drunk driver is not charged with a crime for drunk driving, you may nevertheless sue the drunk driver for damages if you were injured because they struck you while they were driving. The criminal and civil processes are treated separately.

4. There May Be Other Defendants Who May Be Liable for Your Damages.

Missouri enforces what are called “Dram Shop” laws. If you are struck by a drunk driver and are injured, the Dram Shop laws allow you to sue the drunk driver, as well as any other defendants (like a bar, nightclub, or restaurant) that may have provided alcohol to their patron who was visibly drunk, or to a patron who is under 18. Kansas is one of the few states that does not enforce Dram Shop laws.

Some states enforce a similar law called the “social host” law. Under this law, if someone serves alcohol at their private residence or, for example, at a work function, to someone who is visibly intoxicated or under 18 years old and that person subsequently injures you while driving drunk, the host who served the alcohol could be liable. Neither Missouri nor Kansas provide for civil liability under a “social host” law, but Missouri provides for criminal liability for a social host who serves alcohol to a minor. The punishment is up to one year in jail.

Do you have questions about pursuing a case involving a drunken driver?

If you our a loved one has been injured by a drunken driver, you need to speak with an experienced wrongful death lawyer as soon as possible. Contact us online or call our Kansas City office directly at 816.720.5875 to schedule your free consultation.