These days news stories involving death or injury often end with a link to GoFundMe, a website designed for the Internet at large to participate in "crowdfunding." Crowdfunding is the practice of soliciting small donations from a very wide pool of donors toward a particular financial goal. This practice has a wide variety of applications, from funding new commercial products to producing low-budget movies to an infamous effort to make potato salad.
Its weirder uses aside, crowdfunding can be a helpful option for accident victims. They and their loved ones solicit donations to help with hospital bills and time away from work (and in some sad cases, funeral costs). Donation pages are easy to set up and once a campaign expires the site hands over what was collected after taking its brokerage fee.
It's uplifting to see the public's goodwill and generosity in the face of tragedy, but it's also important to remember that the law may be able to help those injured people and their families collect damages from defendants that might actually owe them money for the pain they've endured.
Recent GoFundMe Drives for DUI Crash Victims
As I mentioned, news stories about various fatal incidents often include a GoFundMe link. Here's a few examples of Texas families that turned to the Internet for assistance in a rough time.
In April Terry Nelson, 59, was charged with intoxication manslaughter after drunkenly running her car off the road at a high rate of speed and crashing into several vehicles. The collision took the life of 19-year-old Aldhair "Nano" Lopez and injured two other students. A GoFundMe was established to help pay for Mr. Lopez's funeral expenses.
In February an Uber driver and four passengers were sent to a Dallas hospital after a drunk driver hit their vehicle around 2:15 a.m. When their car entered an intersection, 29-year-old Francisco Torralba-Perez broadsided the Uber's passenger side. The car's driver suffered a brain hemorrhage but stabilized at a nearby hospital. His passengers suffered various non-fatal internal injuries as well as some broken bones. One passenger, 32-year-old Eli Rickman, was critically injured and rendered unconscious by the crash. Torralba-Perez was arrested on five counts of intoxication assault.
At the time Mr. Rickman's family set up a GoFundMe page to help defray the cost of his treatment. Since the crash happened months ago, it appears he has since recovered from his ordeal.
38-year-old Stephen Herrera died in Grapevine after a January crash with a drunk driver.
Around 4 a.m. the offending driver, Derrick Lockhart (37), traveled south in the northbound lanes of a state highway, hitting Herrera's vehicle head-on. Herrera was killed by the impact; a third party in a separate car and Lockhart himself suffered only minor injuries. Lockhart faced charges of intoxication assault with a vehicle and intoxication manslaughter.
Stephen Herrera's family established a GoFundMe to help them offset his funeral expenses.
These are just a few select examples from the last six months, but new campaigns are set up every day to help with the devastating expenses of victimhood and bereavement.
Good Intentions, Flawed System
Just to get this out of the way: I don't think crowdfunding is wrong in principle. Voluntary giving is commendable, and I don't expect much pushback when I say it's good to help those in need. If people want to help these families get back on their feet with a few dozen modest donations, that's great. I don't think the sites are inherently a scam, either; it's likely that they saw a need and filled it and they're right to take a cut for offering the services they do. I do caution users against putting too much faith in the sites, though, because crowdfunding efforts often suffer from rampant fraud.
Because of the way these websites work, they are sometimes subject to impostors. When someone is gravely injured, especially if the incident is highly publicized, a dozen or more GoFundMe pages will often pop up "on behalf of" the injured party or their family. The proceeds allegedly are supposed to go to the victim, but too often an opportunistic stranger pockets the payout. The platforms try to stay on top of fraud complaints, so some bad actors are caught, but many get away with it.
That's not to say that every campaign is shanghaied by bad-faith hucksters; far from it. For instance, all of the GoFundMe pages I mentioned above seem to have achieved modest success in collecting on behalf of drunk driving victims, and more power to them for it. With that said, there are plenty of stories of crowdfunding fraud--sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Since most American drunk driving victims have a far better method of recovery baked into their home states' laws, I encourage them to make use of it as well.
We Have Laws Designed to Help With This.
Apart from crowdfunding's problems with scams, I don't think it necessarily should fall to a community of people who had nothing to do with a drunk driving accident to pay for its consequences. They give from the goodness of their hearts, and that's great, but why not be made whole by the driver himself and the bar that got him drunk? Most states have active dram shop laws created to help with that exact goal.
When a bar patron has too many drinks and then wobbles out to the parking lot to drive home, the law has been violated before he even turns the key in the ignition. Establishments that serve alcohol are legally obligated to withhold further drinks when patrons are, to quote the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code § 2.02, "obviously intoxicated." Whether they stumble in already drunk or get blotto at the bar itself, staff are legally required not to give them any more alcohol once it's clear they're past their tolerance. Far too often it doesn't play out that way, which is how many drunk driving wrecks happen.
If a drunk person harms someone else in his intoxicated state, the last bar to pour him a drink may owe damages to his victims.That means they could be held partly responsible for anything from a drunken fight to a fatal car crash miles from the establishment. Holding bars accountable for those injuries and fatalities isn't just about recovering compensation (though that part is important for victims and their loved ones); it's also about creating a deterrent for other bars who might be tempted to keep pouring as long as a patron can afford it.
GoFundMe may be tempting because it's easy to set up and results can start accumulating quickly; its immediacy is an advantage over the patience often needed by a lawsuit. Bit by bit, friendly contributions can help chip away at daunting hospital bills or funeral costs. In fact, nothing says people can't do that as well as file suit.
My point is only that people shouldn't rely solely on crowdfunding to the exclusion of other types of remedy. Dram shop suits have the potential to provide significantly more assistance than most GoFundMe campaigns can deliver, and more importantly, they hold scofflaw bars accountable for their actions. Otherwise, they won't learn anything and might even be encouraged by the lack of consequences to over-serve someone else.