While drunk drivers face significant criminal penalties, they can usually be held liable for their actions under a state’s civil laws, too. Most states allow accident survivors to sue intoxicated drivers for “negligence,” enabling victims the opportunity to secure valuable compensation for their injuries. Pennsylvania is a little different.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states to offer drivers the option of buying “no fault” auto insurance. Purchasing “no fault” insurance can seem like a great idea at the time, but it also revokes your right to sue after most accidents. Buy what’s known as “full tort” insurance, on the other hand, and you have every right to sue, so long as you can prove that the other driver was negligent.
Learn more about dram shop law from our attorneys.
But the influence of alcohol adds another wrinkle to this story. In addition to other drivers, accident survivors may be able to file suit against the bar or restaurant that served the driver alcohol in the first place.
Under Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Act, licensed establishments can be held liable for the actions of their patrons, but only if the establishment continued to serve a “visibly intoxicated” patron. A similar law holds social hosts accountable for the actions of party guests, but only guests who are under the state’s legal drinking age.
Pennsylvania is a “no fault” state, with laws on the books that can actually reduce a drunk driver’s liability for injuries.
Drunk driving is obviously a negligent act, one that indicates a total lack of regard for the lives and safety of others. Usually, people who act negligently and hurt others can be held financially responsible for those injuries in a civil lawsuit. But intoxicated drivers aren’t necessarily responsible in the same way, because Pennsylvania’s insurance companies work differently.
Your legal situation largely depends on whether or not you opted for a “no fault” auto insurance policy. “No fault” is sometimes referred to as “personal injury protection”; they’re the same thing. Make sure to check the terms and conditions of your policy, and consider discussing your options with an experienced (and local) car accident lawyer to avoid any hang-ups. We’ll begin our discussion with “no fault” policies, and then turn to “at-fault,” or “full tort,” insurance after that.
If you get hurt in a car accident, you’ll be compensated by your own insurance company, not the company that insures the other driver. After an accident, and even if no one disputes that the drunk driver’s negligence caused a crash, both “no fault” parties receive benefits from their own insurers. Only afterwards, behind the scenes, will the two insurance companies come together to figure out who was at fault for the accident.
That’s how “no fault” works in its purest form, but Pennsylvania’s system is even more complicated. Some accident survivors are still eligible to file suit against drunk drivers, even if they have “no fault” insurance. In most states, survivors are able to sue the other driver involved in the accident without any restrictions. Prove that their negligence caused your injuries, and you’re likely to recover compensation in court. Pennsylvania, however, only allows survivors with “no fault” insurance to file lawsuits against other drivers if they’ve suffered “serious injuries.” We’ll cover this severity threshold next.
Pennsylvania’s definition of “serious injury” is set out in the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law. It’s short, so we’ll quote it in full:
“a personal injury resulting in death, serious impairment of body function or permanent serious disfigurement.”
Notice that the definition of “serious injury” still uses the word “serious,” but doesn’t even to try to define what that means. What constitutes a “serious” injury is left up for debate, and it’s always a matter of negotiation. Ultimately, the state’s courts will decide whether or not any one person’s injuries are severe enough to warrant a personal injury lawsuit.
In the eyes of the court, some serious injuries might not be “serious” in this legal sense, but that doesn’t completely invalidate a survivor’s lawsuit. Victims with “no fault” insurance will still be able to sue for medical expenses, lost wages and property damage – as long as those losses weren’t reimbursed by an insurance company, usually because of a policy limit.
Survivors with legally “serious” injuries, on the other hand, are able to demand additional compensation for “non-economic losses,” like the experience of suffering physical pain and the effects of emotional trauma. The right to those “pain and suffering” damages is withheld from victims who suffered physical injuries the court considers “minor.”
You can sue the drunk driver; that’s the right you purchased in buying “full tort” insurance.
The fact that you were injured by a drunk driver, who was committing a crime at the time of the accident, can change things drastically. Most car accident lawsuits don’t involve the criminal justice system at all. It’s just two parties battling it out in civil court. When crimes are involved, however, civil lawsuits tend to follow on the heels of criminal prosecution. That actually turns out to be a good thing for many victims.
In any personal injury lawsuit, the Plaintiff’s goal is to show that the other person was negligent, and that their negligence caused injuries. A criminal conviction for DUI goes a long way in proving this negligence. If the other driver pleads guilty to the charge, or is found guilty by a jury, that fact can be used in a personal injury lawsuit to demonstrate negligence.
At this point, it’s unlikely that the case will have reached trial yet. Instead, the drunk driver’s insurance company will have entered settlement negotiations – and they’ll be extremely motivated to settle. They’ll probably offer more than they would usually consider; in many cases, they’ll offer the drunk driver’s entire policy amount. Whether or not you accept that settlement is up to you, but if you think it’s too low, you can start investigating the drunk driver’s personal assets. They may have personal finances to contribute to the settlement offer, but if they don’t want to, you can take them to court.
Pennsylvania’s alcohol service, or “dram shop,” laws offer accident survivors another possible source of compensation.
It’s illegal for any licensed establishment (think bars, restaurants and liquor stores) to sell, serve or otherwise “furnish” alcohol to a visibly-intoxicated person. It’s also illegal to give alcohol to minors, whether or not they were visibly-intoxicated at the time. If any of those people go on to harm others, say in a drunk driving accident, the server, their manager and possibly the establishment itself can be held liable for injuries that result. A similar “social host” law holds private party hosts liable for any injuries caused by minors served at the event.
Here are the 2 things you’ll have to prove to win a dram shop drunk driver lawsuit:
Where drivers over the age of 21 are concerned, visible intoxication is key; if you can’t prove that the patron was already intoxicated at the time, it’s unlikely you’ll have a viable dram shop lawsuit.
Intoxication has to be something a bartender should have picked up on, and that means visual cues like blurry, blood-shot eyes or boisterous behavior. The results of a blood, urine or breath test won’t cut it, and even a DUI conviction probably won’t have much effect on a dram shop case. Why? Because criminal prosecutions are only interested in “legal intoxication,” a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher. But bartenders can’t just administer a breath test before serving their patrons alcohol, and as we’ve seen, the Dram Shop Act only cares about signs of “visible intoxication.”
There’s no correlation between legal intoxication and visible intoxication, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. People have different tolerances for alcohol, depending on their weight, how much they ate, over-all health and how fast they drank. Someone with a BAC over 0.08% might not appear intoxicated at all, and licensed establishments can only be held responsible for accidents that they could have prevented.
Proving a violation of the law isn’t enough, though. You’ll also have to show a direct link between the illegal service of alcohol and the accident. That can be trickier than it sounds.
What if the driver got drunk at a bar, then went home and spent 3 more hours drinking, and then got into an accident? Here, we have a “causation problem.” Did those beers at the bar (however illegally served) cause the driver’s intoxication at the time of the crash, or did the whisky the driver drank at home?
Sure, but it will be tough.
By any standard, Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws are strange. Need to buy beer and you can go to a privately-owned distributor or bar. Wine and liquor have to be purchased at state-run stores. Those government-owned stores are covered by the Dram Shop Act, which explicitly includes “employees, servants or agents of the board,” meaning the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board that owns and operates all 600 of the state’s “Fine Wine & Good Spirits” stores.
It’s possible to sue a business owned by the state government, but you’ll have to follow a strict set of rules, and sneak under some highly-restrictive time limits. That’s probably true for every dram shop lawsuit. No matter what kind of establishment served the alcohol, Pennsylvania’s liquor liability laws are so complex that finding an experienced drunk driver lawyer to help is almost undoubtedly in your best interests.
Victims have 2 years from the date of the accident to file a dram shop lawsuit in Pennsylvania. This 2 year “statute of limitations” holds for lawsuits filed against drunk drivers, too. For minors who are injured by an intoxicated driver, the statute of limitations is 2 years, but that time limit starts on their 18th birthday.