Criminal Prosecution vs. Personal Injury in Drunk Driving Cases (Part 1 of 2)

Here is an unfortunately all-too-common scenario: you’re driving home late one night from a family get-together. Suddenly, while coming around a turn, a car appears in your lane coming right at you. You try to swerve, but it’s too late, and the other vehicle hits you head on. Your vehicle is totaled. Your family is a bit shaken-up but seems to otherwise be ok. It’s immediately obvious that the other driver is severely intoxicated. When police arrive on the scene, he’s mostly incoherent. The police report indicates that there was a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle, he admitted to having several drinks, and could not perform any of the field sobriety tests. As a result, you’re not surprised to learn that the other driver is being prosecuted for DUI.  

A few days pass and you discover that even though you have insurance, you’re going to have to pay out of pocket in order to replace your car. In addition, you have a lot of stiffness in your upper body. Your husband has intermittent pain in his neck, and one of your children is complaining about severe, recurring headaches. What do you do?

Isn’t all of this being handled in the criminal case? Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be discussing how the criminal case and a claim for personal injury are related.  

Criminal Charges vs. Civil Liability

It’s important to first understand that the criminal prosecution and a claim for personal injury (a civil case) are two very different things. The criminal charges are between the driver and the state because the driver broke the law. If convicted, the driver will face fines, potential jail time, and a number of other penalties.  

However, you can still file a personal injury lawsuit against the driver. In the civil suit, you are seeking compensation for your injuries and other damages, such as lost wages, damage to your vehicle, and pain and suffering. As a result, the driver may wind up with both a DUI conviction and a money judgment for your personal injury claim.  

Standards of Proof

We also note that if the driver isn’t charged with DUI or the charge is later dropped, you can still recover for your injuries in a civil case. Criminal and civil actions have different standards of proof. In the criminal case, the prosecution has to prove that the driver was intoxicated beyond a reasonable doubt. While it was obvious to you at the accident that the driver was intoxicated, it is more difficult than you may think to prove he was intoxicated, especially if the driver has hired a lawyer who specializes in DUI defense.  

While the prosecutor may not have been able to prove the driver was intoxicated, you may have sufficient proof in the civil suit to establish negligence. In your personal injury case, you have to prove that the other driver was negligent by preponderance of the evidence, a much lower standard of proof. Beyond a reasonable doubt means that no reasonable person could doubt that the driver was intoxicated. Preponderance of the evidence means that the proof only needs to be slightly more convincing that he was intoxicated than the proof that he was not.  

As a result, your testimony concerning the other driver’s behavior may be sufficient to prove that he was intoxicated. However, it’s important to note that you don’t even need to prove that he was intoxicated – all you need to prove is that he was negligent. Therefore, the fact that he crossed the center of the road or other facts surrounding the accident may be enough for you to prevail in your lawsuit.

Contact an Atlanta Area Personal Injury Attorney Today

If you’ve been injured by a drunk driver, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible.  The lawyers at Slappey & Sadd have been working with drunk driving victims across Georgia since 1992. If you’d like a free consultation, contact us at 404-255-6677 or send us an email.  

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