DUI Injuries – The Law in Florida
Recognizing the devastating impact of drunk drivers on the Florida public, state legislators, politicians and justices have made it a special point to hold DUI offenders accountable through a series of increasingly stiff penalties and fines.
While impaired drivers who cause injury or death may be eventually required by the criminal court to pay restitution to the victim as part of their punishment, this is not the primary goal of the criminal justice system. At Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, we have spent more than four decades fighting for the rights of victims and families forced to suffer the consequences of collisions caused by drunk drivers.
For civil justice, victims must pursue a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. It is in this forum that injured and aggrieved parties can seek compensation, not just from the driver and his insurance company but from the owner of the vehicle, any persons or businesses that illegally furnished him with alcohol, and other contributors to the crash.
Driving while intoxicated is a crime, per Florida Statute 316.193 . If it results in serious injury, it’s a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. If it results in a death, it’s a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years behind bars.
DUI is also a form of negligence. However, a certain threshold of evidence is required to prove the victim worthy of compensation. Establishing legal liability can be complicated, but the plaintiff (or injured party) generally needs to show:
- The driver had a duty to the injured party to practice caution;
- The duty was breached;
- As a proximate result of that breach, the plaintiff was injured.
This same theory is applicable to bars that sell alcohol to minors (in violation of Florida’s Dram Shop laws), vehicle owners who lend cars to unsafe drivers (dangerous instrumentality/vicarious liability), and commercial firms that hire drivers with a spotty history behind the wheel.
Drunk Drivers and Uninsured Motorist Insurance in Florida
All drivers are required to carry automobile insurance. Florida is a no-fault auto insurance state, meaning injured parties will first rely on their own insurer to cover damages. However, in many drunk driving crashes, injuries are significant and those liability limits are not enough to cover all medical expenses, lost wages, and ongoing care needs.
This is why many victims of drunk drivers pursue claims with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. It is important to have an experienced attorney throughout this process, as it is common for insurance carriers to issue “lowball offers,” pressuring claimants to accept far less compensation than what they are entitled to receive.
This assumes the impaired driver even had insurance, or anything above what is statutorily required. If not, the plaintiff may need to pursue a claim for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage through his or her own carrier. When insurance companies refuse to pay what’s fair, Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, is committed to fighting for you.
A Drunk Driver’s Defense – Comparative Fault
One of the most common defenses in a civil drunk driving case is the assertion of comparative fault. A defendant will attempt to show the plaintiff (or some other third party) shared responsibility for causing the crash.
Unless an agreement is reached during negotiations or mediation, apportionment of fault is a matter for a jury to decide.
While some states disallow recovery of damages for a victim who shares part of the blame, Florida has followed a different system—called “pure” comparative negligence—since 1973. This system allows plaintiffs to recover damages, minus his or her degree of fault. So if a jury finds damages in the amount of $100,000, with an injured party found to be 10 percent at fault, he or she would be awarded $90,000.
Drunk drivers are generally precluded from seeking damages for their own injuries from other parties. For example, Florida Statute 768.36, passed in 1999, holds that a plaintiff is barred from recovery of damages if he or she had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher at the time of the incident and, as a result of such intoxication, is found to be more than 50 percent at fault for his or her own harm.
Florida Dram Shop Laws and Dangerous Instrumentality
While negligence theory does not generally allow third parties to be made responsible for the reckless actions of others, there are some exceptions:
The first is the Florida Dram Shop Law. Florida Statute 768.125 allows those injured by drunk drivers to take civil action against a person who willfully and unlawfully sells or furnishes alcohol to a person who is under 21 or who is known to be habitually addicted to alcohol. Included in this group might be bartenders, liquor store owners, and parents who host parties with alcohol for teens.
The second is the principle of dangerous instrumentality. This is a common law doctrine holding an owner of an inherently dangerous tool liable for injuries suffered as a result of that tool’s operation. Most states do not recognize motor vehicles as an inherently dangerous tool. Florida, however, has done so since the 1920 Florida Supreme Court decision in Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson. Basically what this means is when a person allows a third party to operate a vehicle, he or she becomes liable for any damages that result from its negligent operation. So if the drunk driver was driving someone else’s vehicle, there is a chance victims may be able to recover damages from the vehicle owner as well.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of a drunk driving accident in Southwest Florida, contact Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured. Offices in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples, and Port Charlotte.