Texas Drunk Driving Accident Cases - An Overview
When people drink and get behind the wheel of a car, unimaginable tragedies can happen. According to the The Texas Department of Transportation, nearly 1,100 people died in 2013 from alcohol-related car accidents. That means that there are three people who die each day in Texas because someone made the choice to drive under the influence. And that's not even accounting for victims who have been injured but survived the accident.
The fact is that there are laws in place to protect us from drunk drivers, but they're often ignored. The purpose of this page is to give you an idea of how Texas law handles drunk driving accidents, as well as help you understand what kind of case you may have and how to successfully litigate it.
Questions answered in this section:
- How does an attorney prove that a drunk driver caused an accident?
- Aside from the driver, who else can be held liable in a drunk driving accident?
- What if a victim was drinking at someone's house and not a bar?
Holding the Drunk Driver Responsible
It's common knowledge that drunk drivers who kill people can face serious jail time. It seems like there's always at least one story on the nightly news in any given metropolitan area about a drunk driver getting sentenced to prison. But while locking up the people who cause these horrible accidents provides victims' families with some justice, they're still left with many losses the criminal courts simply don't have the power to heal.
This is where lawsuits against drunk drivers -- and often the bars that sell them alcohol -- are so important. The families of victims can finally have their chance to prove what they've lost.
It's helpful to keep some key terms in mind while we explain the process:
- Defendant: A person/party being named (sued) in a lawsuit.
- Plaintiff: The person/party bringing the lawsuit against the defendant, claiming some type of loss that the defendant allegedly caused.
- Damages: The losses suffered as a result of the defendant's negligent behavior or actions.
Proving the Drunk Driver Caused the Accident
Once someone injures another person while driving and it is later shown that the driver was drunk, it's tempting to think that the case is basically automatic. The driver should be financially responsible, right? It's more complicated than that. The family's attorney must prove the connection between the alcohol, the accident, and their loved one's injuries.
First, just because the driver was drunk does not necessarily prove that he caused the accident. Think about it this way: we all agree that drunk driving is bad, but plenty of drunk people make it home every night without hurting anyone. Further, accidents happen all the time for different reasons, many of which (obviously) have nothing to do with alcohol. It's not commonplace, but sometimes it's the drunk driver himself who's the victim. Think about it. A drunk driver who is sitting at a stoplight and gets rear-ended by an 18-wheeler isn't at fault just because he was drunk.
Second, even if the driver's intoxication led to the accident, his or her insurance company may well try to argue that the victim was at least in small part responsible as well. They might argue that the plaintiff was speeding or could have gotten out of the way. This comes into play especially when the person who was injured in the accident was a passenger in the drunk driver's car.
Third, even where the case is clear-cut, insurance companies often simply deny the claim and force you to file a lawsuit. They do this because they know that you are worried about recovery, you likely haven't had a reason to hire a lawyer before, and they hope you'll be too intimidated by them to face the legal process.
So, how does an attorney show that a drunk driver was responsible?
- The investigation: The police keep important records of their initial investigation into the accident. They take pictures, write down witnesses' names and numbers, and make a general assessment about what happened. While useful, a thorough attorney uses the police material as a starting point. He or she chases down the witnesses and gets a more thorough understanding of what they saw, where they were when they saw it, whether they knew the victim or perpetrator, and whether the witnesses took pictures or video footage of the accident's aftermath.
- The litigation process: Once the driver is identified and an initial investigation is complete, it's time to file a lawsuit with the court. This allows the attorney to demand that the drunk driver identify where he was drinking, what he drank, and his or her version of events. Further, as an officer of the court, an attorney can put witnesses under oath long before a trial and get sworn testimony about what they saw or did. Lastly, the attorney can require the defendant to hand over credit card statements and receipts to help prove how intoxicated he was.
- Settlement or trial: Once all the evidence is taken, the attorney will demand that the drunk driver's insurance company compensate the victim(s). This is a formal process that often results in an exchange of views about the case, it's "value," and allows the parties to sense each other's appetite for taking the case before a jury. If that process is unsuccessful, the case goes before the court.
It takes years to learn how to excel in each of the three stages. Only after completing them successfully over and over can a lawyer know the pitfalls and opportunities that each stage presents. What the lawyer is trying to prove with courtroom-level evidence is that: 1) the other driver was drunk, 2) the drunkenness was such that it impaired the driver, 3) that the impairment led to the accident, and 4) that the victim was truly not responsible for even 1% of the accident.
Going After Not Just the Driver, But the Bar, Too
In a drunk driving accident, there are really two types of claims to be made: one against the drunk driver who caused the accident and one against whoever provided the alcohol in the first place. The drunk driver is obviously going to be responsible for their actions, and the law allows for victims of the accident to file suit against the drunk driver. But, the "provider" of alcohol, which is usually a bar or a restaurant, can also held liable as well.
Since alcohol is a drug that affects your ability to make decisions, our state government has decided to make rules about who can sell it and who can consume it. In addition to those laws, the State of Texas has imposed further rules upon bars and restaurants who wish to sell alcohol.
Namely, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission was created to make sure everyone in Texas who wanted to sell alcohol to their customers was following the same rules. In general, a licensed provider of alcohol cannot sell, furnish, or otherwise make alcohol available to anyone who is already obviously intoxicated. Those are the rules, and if a bar breaks them, there are consequences. If a customer at a bar is obviously intoxicated (i.e., slurring their speech, stumbling over things, or just over-consuming alcohol) and the bartenders still serve them more alcohol, they've broken the law. If that customer then gets behind the wheel of a car and gets into an accident, then both he and the bar that served him are responsible for their contribution. This is all part of Texas Dram Shop Law.
Winning a Drunk Driving Accident Lawsuit Takes Skill
Filing a lawsuit is easy, but winning the case is another matter. Just as there are special rules and regulations a bar must follow, there are particular things you have to prove to a jury before a bar can actually be held liable. For example, a bar might argue that all their employees were satisfactorily trained in TABC rules and regulations, that they tried their hardest to prevent customers from being over-served, and that they've never had drunks in their bars before. Your attorney's job is to prove otherwise.
To win your case against the bar, your lawyer must show that:
- The bar sold too much alcohol to their patron.
- The bar knew or should have known the patron was intoxicated when they sold them that alcohol.
- The alcohol actually caused the accident, as opposed to something else.
If that seems like a lot, it's because it is. Within each element listed above are several other things that need to be proven. For example, in order to establish that the drunk driver was intoxicated to the point that the bar knew better than to sell the patron more alcohol, you'll want access to the driver's blood-alcohol levels at the time of the accident. If that's not accessible, then you may hit a dead end unless you know what your other options are.
Our point here is simple: lawyers without experience in these cases are fish out of water.
At the end of the day, you're going to have defense attorneys to contend with, as well as insurance companies that flat-out don't want to accept any kind of liability. The best strategy is to be prepared for all the defensive arguments that will be thrown your way in advance, get the evidence you need to win fast, and always take extra care to file all the right documents and pay attention to due dates and deadlines.
These kinds of cases aren't just an afternoon of dramatic courtroom arguments; instead, they take place over many months of litigation and back-and-forths between the attorneys and insurance companies. You have to be willing to put in the necessary time and manpower to cover all your bases, or find an attorney who will do it for you.
"Social Hosts" May Also Be Liable for Drunk Driving Accidents
As you've already noticed, bars and restaurants are two of the most common defendants in drunk driving accident lawsuits. When a bar is accused of over-serving a customer who then caused an accident and hurt someone else (or themselves).
However, there are other kinds of alcohol providers as well. Stadiums, sports arenas, and rodeos are also examples of venues where alcohol is sold and where the TABC rules must be followed.
However, another major provider of alcohol is a social host, that is, a person who provides alcohol at a social gathering. Usually, this happens at the host's home, but there are a number of other "social host" scenarios:
For a social host serving adult guests, there is no liability for intoxication. Any guest over the age of 18 is considered a legal adult, even if they're under the drinking age of 21. That means they're responsible for their own actions, and even if they get drunk at the host's house party and then cause a drunk driving accident, they alone (and not the social host) are responsible for the accident.
But when a social host serves alcohol to someone who is under the age of 18, the social host is considered liable as far as alcohol-related accidents is concerned. If any alcohol is served at the event/party, the social host is under legal obligation to make sure that no alcohol is made available to minor guests.
The most common example of our social host laws in action would be a party with young teenagers. If an adult is present and allows alcohol to be provided to minors, that person has not only broken the law, but they're also liable for anything the minors might do while under the influence - including driving a car. Even if the adult is not present, but knew the circumstances, the law still holds them liable. This liability also extrndss to older siblings who buy beer for their high school-aged little brothers or sisters.
Getting To the Finish Line
In a drunk driving accident case, you can sue for all of the normal personal injury or wrongful death damages allowed under Texas law. This includes pain and suffering, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, loss of services, mental anguish, etc.
But just like in any other case under Texas law, your lawyer must be able to prove each dollar you are claiming as losses. This could involve hiring an expert like an economist or mental health specialist to explain in detail that a jury can understand exactly what you've lost and what you're therefore entitled to be awarded in court.
These cases are not just about holding the drunk driver and the bar responsible, they're about giving you a voice. You get to tell your story on your terms. Only an experienced drunk driving lawyer can provide the opportunity. Give us a call at (855) 326-0000.
Related articles for further reading:
- Why Bars Are Held Responsible in Drunk Driving Accidents
- What It Means to Be Obviously Intoxicated
- Evidence Needed in a Drunk Driving Accident Case