It's not unusual for a judge or jury to reduce a plaintiff's monetary award by a certain percentage—or prevent the individual from collecting any money at all—if it comes to light that the person was intoxicated while driving. However, passengers who ride in vehicles with intoxicated people may also be subjected to the same penalty. Here's what you need to know about this possibility and what you can do to avoid it.
Comparative and Contributory Negligence
While it's true that the driver of the vehicle has a duty to operate it in a safe manner, passengers also have a duty to prevent their own injuries. This means that the court expects them to avoid putting themselves in situations they know may lead to them being harmed in some way. When a person gets into a vehicle with an intoxicated driver, the court assumes the passenger knew the risks involved and, thus, may be held partially or fully liable for his or her own injuries.
The amount of liability the court assigns to the passenger depends on the circumstances, and how it impacts your ability to successfully sue the defendant for compensation for your injuries depends on whether you live in a state that uses comparative negligence or contributory negligence to assess damage awards.
In states that use comparative negligence, the court will assign a percentage of liability to each party, and any money awarded for injuries and losses is reduced accordingly. For example, the court finds you are 20 percent liable for your injuries. Any money awarded to you will be reduced by that amount (e.g., $10,000 – 20 percent = $8,000). In this situation, you'll still collect something, but not as much as you may have expected.
The same can't be said if you live in a state that uses the contributory negligence model. In these states, you'll be barred from collecting any money if you're found to be a certain percentage liable for your injuries. Most states set the limit at 50 or 51 percent. However, a few states—such as Maryland and Virginia—set the bar at 1 percent. If your percentage of liability meets or exceeds the bar, you won't get any money at all.
While it's true that it's incumbent upon the defendant to prove his or her accusations against you, you'll need to put forth a credible defense if the defendant can show you knew or should've know the driver was intoxicated. One possible defense is to claim you actually didn't know the person was too intoxicated to drive. Drugs and alcohol affect people in different ways, so this may be believable in certain situations.
For instance, people who drink frequently or heavily can often consume a lot of alcohol before they actually show signs of intoxication because they metabolize it differently and often need to drink more alcohol to achieve the same effect. Therefore, it may be credible that you didn't know the person's BAC exceeded the legal level if the person didn't show classic signs of being drunk, such as slurred speech and unsteady gait.
The other option is to show you were too incapacitated to adequately evaluate the risk of being a passenger in the vehicle with a drunk driver. If you were intoxicated as well or unconscious, the court may agree you couldn't properly consent to accepting the risk associated with the situation and adjust or eliminate your liability for your injuries.
The third option is to show that the accident would have occurred regardless of whether the driver was intoxicated or not. The intoxicated driver pulls out into the intersection at a green light, but the defendant ran a red light and T-boned the vehicle. Your driver's level of intoxication had little to no impact on the cause of the accident and, therefore, shouldn't be a consideration when parsing monetary awards.
For more information about this issue or help with an auto accident case, contact an attorney at a law firm such as Speers Reuland & Cibulskis, P.C.