Everyone knows the devastation that a drunk driving accident can cause. Although the rate of drunk driving fatalities has declined by about 18 percent since 2000—partly because of the introduction of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft—one-third of all traffic fatalities in the United States (10,000 fatalities a year) still involve drunk driving.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Missouri had the 8th greatest decrease in drunk-driving fatality rates of all states, from 2000 (432 fatalities) to 2017 (254 fatalities), for a total decrease of 41.20%. Kansas ranked 21st in the country in largest decrease of drunk-driving fatality rate from 2000 (135 fatalities) to 2017 (102 fatalities) for a total decrease of 24.44%.
Nevertheless, drunk driving fatalities are an ongoing concern in Missouri and Kansas. That is why the personal injury attorneys at Foster Wallace are dedicated to representing victims who are injured or killed in car accidents caused by the reckless negligence of a drunk driver.
Here are five things you should know about suing a drunk driver for injuries they caused you:
1. There are Criminal and Civil Consequences for Drunk Driving.
If you or a loved one have been injured by a drunk driver, it is important to understand that there are two different kinds of laws that apply to your case, and each kind of law involves a different court process. These are criminal laws, which are applied in the criminal court process, and “tort” laws, which apply in the civil court process.
- Criminal Law. Criminal law is the body of law that defines what kind of actions will be illegal and punishable—either by paying a fine or going to jail, for example. The state will define what actions it will treat as a crime and what the punishment will be for committing each crime. For example, the state may create a law that makes it illegal to drive your car through an intersection when you have a red light. If you drive through the red light, you will be charged with that crime. A judge or a jury will determine whether you are guilty of driving through the intersection on a red light or not. If you are guilty, you will either pay a fine or go to jail—whatever the state decides the punishment is for running a red light. If you are innocent, you are not punished. That is the criminal process.
- Tort Law. A “tort” is simply a legal term that describes a civil wrong that someone commits that leads to injury to another person for which the person committing the tortious act is liable. Someone can commit a tort against you by affirmatively taking some action that injures you or by not taking action when they should have, which results in you suffering some injury because of their inaction. In either case, the tortious wrongdoer will have acted (or not acted) in a way that fails to fulfill some duty that they owed to you or a standard of care that was expected of them. For example, a doctor has a duty toward their patients to prescribe the correct medicine. If the doctor acts in a way that fails that duty (prescribes the wrong medicine when they knew or should have known the correct medicine to give you) or fails to act in a way that satisfies the standard of care that they owe you (they do not prescribe any medicine when they knew or should have known what medicine you needed), and you become ill because of it, then they have committed a tort against you. You may sue your doctor to compensate you for your damages. A judge or a jury will listen to the facts of your case and decide whether the doctor was negligent in acting (or not acting) the way they did. If the doctor was negligent, then they must compensate you for your injuries. That is the civil process.
2. Missouri and Kansas Treat Civil Liability for Drunk Driving Differently.
In terms of criminal law, Missouri and Kansas treat drunk driving the same—it is a crime in either state to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content over the prescribed limit. If you do this, you will have committed a crime and will go through the criminal process described above. You do not even have to have struck or injured someone with your vehicle. You commit the crime simply by operating the vehicle while you are legally drunk. However, if you do drive drunk and injure or kill someone, you may be charged with another crime (negligent homicide) that will subject you to another punishment. The specific punishments in Missouri and Kansas (and all states) may be different, but it is a crime to drive drunk in both states.
In terms of tort law, Missouri and Kansas treat the liability for injuring someone by drunk driving differently in some respects. Here are two examples:
- In Missouri, if someone injures you or kills one of your family members because they were driving drunk, you can raise a civil claim (a tort) not only against the drunk driver who injured you, but you also may sue someone who contributed to their illegal action, such as by providing them alcohol or encouraging them to drive even though they were drunk. In Kansas, however, claims against such other parties are not available to you.
- In both Missouri and Kansas you may be entitled to punitive damages (damages beyond the cost of your injuries, medical care, etc.) when the drunk driver acted particularly egregious or carelessly by driving drunk. Although the two states have a different standard for the type of conduct that warrants punitive damages, punitive damages are available in both states. However, Kansas puts a limit on the amount of punitive damages you may receive, whereas Missouri does not.
3. A Drunk Driver Who Injures You Is Liable for Damages.
Even if a drunk driver is not charged with a crime for drunk driving, you may nevertheless sue the drunk driver for damages if you were injured because they struck you while they were driving. The criminal and civil processes are treated separately.
For a drunk driver to be liable for your damages, you must prove that they were negligent, as described above. To prove a drunk driver was negligent, you must prove that:
- The drunk driver owed you a duty (the duty would be not to endanger the lives of other drivers on the road)
- The drunk driver breached that duty (a drunk driver breaches their duty by driving their vehicle on the road in an intoxicated state)
- The drunk driver caused your injuries (any injuries you sustain when you are struck by a drunk driver are caused by the drunk driver’s actions)
- The drunk driver was the proximate cause of your injuries (if you are struck by a drunk driver and fracture your ankle, for which you do not see a doctor for several days and, upon exiting the elevator in your doctor’s office, you trip over your shoelace and fall to the ground, breaking your wrist, the drunk driver would be liable for your broken ankle because they were the proximate cause, but they would not be liable for your broken wrist. Even though you probably would not have been at the doctor’s office were it not for the drunk driver striking you and, therefore, may not have tripped and broken your wrist, the drunk driver did not take any action upon you that caused you to break your wrist. Therefore, the drunk driver would not be considered the proximate cause of your wrist injury.
4. There May Be Other Defendants Who May Be Liable for Your Damages.
Missouri enforces what are called “Dram Shop” laws. If you are struck by a drunk driver and are injured, the Dram Shop laws allow you to sue the drunk driver, as well as any other defendants (like a bar, nightclub, or restaurant) that may have provided alcohol to their patron who was visibly drunk, or to a patron who is under 18. Kansas is one of the few states that does not enforce Dram Shop laws.
Some states enforce a similar law called the “social host” law. Under this law, if someone serves alcohol at their private residence or, for example, at a work function, to someone who is visibly intoxicated or under 18 years old and that person subsequently injures you while driving drunk, the host who served the alcohol could be liable. Neither Missouri nor Kansas provide for civil liability under a “social host” law, but Missouri provides for criminal liability for a social host who serves alcohol to a minor. The punishment is up to one year in jail.
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