When medical bills and repair bills mount as the result of the actions of a drunk driver, it’s helpful to understand the path toward financial recovery through insurance claims and, potentially, lawsuits.
Washington is a pure comparative negligence state when it comes to assigning legal responsibility for accidents of any kind. In pure comparative negligence, the party who is responsible for the accident is also responsible for compensating victims for their damages. However, it’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. Each party may be considered to have a percentage of responsibility for an accident, and the awards are weighted accordingly.
For example, if a victim suffers $20,000 of damage in an accident, they may pursue that amount in a claim But if they are determined to have 10 percent of the responsibility for the accident, that $20,000 award will be reduced by 10 percent, or $2,000.
The insurance company of the responsible party might pursue a quick settlement, or seek to have you sign a liability release. Most likely it’s best to move slowly and not accept either one. Injuries can linger and their full impact could not be felt for months. Signing a release and accepting a settlement could leave you paying for those medical expenses down the road.
Unique to drunk driving
Drunk driving accidents do have a couple of legal characteristics that separate it from a standard auto collision.
First, DUI-related accidents have criminal proceedings attached for the drunk driver, separate from any insurance claim or civil action. For those pursuing legal action against a person who caused a drunk driving accident, this is another reason it’s often best wait and to allow the criminal case to conclude first. The defendant would have the DUI conviction on their record, which might weaken their standing in the eyes of a judge or jury for the civil case.
Also unique is the factor of dram shop liability. A “dram shop” is a term for an establishment where liquor is sold. Washington law allows a victims to sue an establishment that serves alcohol to someone who then causes a drunk driving accident,vin one of two cases:
The establishment served alcohol to a minor, who then caused the accident.
Social host liability is related to dram shop liability, except that it applies primarily to private hosts rather than to a bar or tavern. In addition, the host can only be held responsible for a drunk driving accident if the driver determined to be at fault is a minor.
Dram shop liability and social host liability are especially useful to plaintiffs in cases where a drunk driver does not actually have insurance. Though drivers are legally required to have auto insurance, it’s estimated more than 17 percent of Washington drivers do not. This ranks seventh-most among the 50 states and District of Columbia.
Some drivers will keep between $10,000 and $35,000 of personal injury protection (PIP) that pays out no matter who is at fault. In many cases, however, the property damage and medical costs go well beyond that amount. If the responsible driver is uninsured, the dram shop liability might be the only recourse for compensation.
It should be noted that Washington does not put caps on damage awards in personal injury lawsuits, as state courts have ruled them unconstitutional.