Determining Liability in Alcohol-Related Car Crashes

As recently as the late 1980s, New York and most other states had rather lenient DUI laws. And, for the most part, peace officers were not very diligent about enforcing the laws which did exist. As a result, alcohol caused about a third of the fatal car crashes in New York.

Then, an extended DUI crackdown began. This crackdown included tougher laws, more vigorous enforcement, and an extensive public information campaign which changed the perception of “drunk drivers.”

Yet despite all these efforts, and all this money, alcohol still causes about a third of the fatal vehicle collisions in New York.

As in so many other areas, when lawmakers fail to keep people safe, New York personal injury attorneys must take up the slack. So, we fight to bring justice to the victims of alcohol-related car accidents. We also fight to deliver needed compensation in these cases. This compensation usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.


Direct Evidence in New York Alcohol-Related Cases

If there is evidence that the tortfeasor (negligent driver) was drinking, first responders usually administer field sobriety tests and extract a breath sample from the tortfeasor. If the tortfeasor fails either or both of these tests, which is normally the case, responders arrest the driver for DUI.

These charges have more than criminal consequences. If the tortfeasor was charged with DUI, the negligence per se doctrine may apply. The tortfeasor is normally liable for damages as a matter of law if:

  • The person violated the DUI law or another safety law, and
  • That violation substantially caused the victim/plaintiff’s injuries.

This doctrine is still in play even if the tortfeasor beats the DUI on a technicality. For example, in many DUI collision cases, it is hard for prosecutors to place the defendant behind the wheel at the time of the crash. But the initial charge is really all that is relevant in civil court. The jury decides all factual matters, including responsibility for a DUI.


Establishing Claims with Circumstantial Evidence

Sometimes, the tortfeasor was unable to perform tests, perhaps due to serious injury. Other times, the tortfeasor passed the tests, and responders do not file DUI charges.

In these situations, victim/plaintiffs can use circumstantial evidence to establish alcohol impairment by a preponderance of the evidence. Such evidence includes things like:

  • Erratic driving,
  • The odor of alcohol.
  • Bloodshot eyes, and
  • Slurred speech.

Scientifically, alcohol impairment begins with the first drink. So, if the tortfeasor was drinking, the tortfeasor was probably impaired for negligence purposes. The standard of evidence is low as well. A “preponderance of the proof” means “more likely than not.”


Third-Party Liability Matters

Alcohol-related crashes often cause catastrophic injuries. In these situations, individual tortfeasors may not have enough insurance coverage to provide fair compensation.

Fortunately, New York has an extremely broad dram shop law. Commercial alcohol providers, like grocery stores and restaurants, are liable for the damages that their impaired patrons cause if the person was:

  • Under 21, or
  • “Noticeably intoxicated” at the time of the sale.

To establish noticeable intoxication, the victim/plaintiff can use the same circumstantial evidence outlined above.


Contact a New York Attorney

Alcohol-related crash victims have several legal options. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in New York, contact Michael J. Redenburg Esq. P.C. An attorney can connect victims with doctors, even if they have no money or insurance.