Depending on whose statistics you wish to cite, drivers who are impaired
by alcohol at the time of an accident are responsible for between 10,000
and 13,000 traffic fatalities each year. In today’s post, the personal
injury lawyer at the Doan Law Firm will discuss the concept of “presumptive
impairment” and how it relates to lawsuits alleging personal injury
and wrongful death.
For states to receive certain types of funding through the federal Department
of Transportation or one of its administrative divisions, each state must
have a law “on the books” which gives that state’s legal
definition of Driving While Impaired / Driving While Intoxicated. In all
states, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or greater is taken
to be proof that that a driver’s judgment and/or reflexes were impaired
at the time an accident occurred. If a state law holds that a BAC of greater
than 0.08% is sufficient to convict a driver of the crime of Driving While
Impaired, regardless of any other evidence to the contrary, that state’s
law is said to allow a conviction based on a “presumption of impairment.”
Liability and presumptive impairment
The legal basis for assigning liability in presumptive impairment begins
from a position that a reasonably-prudent individual, being aware that
driving while impaired poses a risk to others, would not willingly operate
a motor vehicle while in such a condition. Therefore, by operating a vehicle
while impaired, that driver has acted with deliberate disregard for the
health and safety of others and thus has met the legal definition of negligence.
As opposed to criminal law, where all the available evidence must support
a conviction, civil law requires only that the evidence be sufficient
to suggest that negligence has occurred and that such negligence was the
direct cause of an injury. In the case of an allegedly-impaired driver,
this means that a driver whose BAC is greater than 0.08% is assumed to
have been impaired based on his or her BAC alone and is therefore liable
for damages. However, while a BAC in excess of 0.08% is considered sufficient
to convict in a criminal court, it is not sufficient to assign liability
for damages in a civil lawsuit.
In law, the question of liability is usually determined by a jury (or by
a judge if allowed by state law). Hence, the available facts surrounding
an injury must be taken together before liability can be determined and
the appropriate amount of damages to be paid is decided. If, for example,
a jury determines that an impaired driver was responsible for an accident
but that the injured party’s own actions contributed to his or her
injuries, the doctrine of “comparative” or “contributory”
may come into play and could result in the amount of damages to paid being
reduced by an amount that reflects the injured party’s “degree
of fault.” In some jurisdictions, the extent of the injured party’s
contributory negligence can actually result in an inability to recover
damages in a civil lawsuit.
Why you need a personal injury and accident lawyer in presumptive impairment accidents
If a driver is found to be at fault in an accident, and that driver is
found to have alcohol in his or her system, the issue of liability for
damages is often obvious and an out-of-court agreement can often be negotiated.
In fact, many impaired driver cases are settled in this manner. At other
times, particularly when the at-fault driver’s BAC is less than
0.08% or if the injured party also tests positive for alcohol, questions
of comparative negligence will usually result in the matter being submitted
to a jury.
In many states a BAC of 0.08% is all that is necessary to convict a driver
on a criminal charge of Driving While Impaired. However, this does not
mean that 0.08% is some “magic number” such that anything
less than 0.08% is “proof” that a driver was not impaired
at the time of an accident. In such cases, other evidence such as the
results of a field sobriety test or statements taken from witnesses must
be considered when considering the degree of impairment.
In closing, and since impaired driver cases are usually more complex than
they may appear at first glance, it is vital that anyone injured in an
impaired driver accident retain the services of an experienced personal
injury attorney in order to protect their legal right to receive compensation
for their injuries and/or property losses.