According to the FBI, over 1.4 million people were arrested in the United States in 2010 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. And all that drunk driving leads to injuries: 23% of drivers of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes in 2010 had a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher.
Numerous legal issues arise when a drunk driver hits a pedestrian, both criminal and civil. Obviously, the driver can face penalties for driving under the influence, including jail time, fines, and loss of driving privileges. In some circumstances, the driver can face more serious charges, such as manslaughter.
But this article focuses on the civil legal issues that can arise from a car versus pedestrian accidentinvolving a drunk driver: can the pedestrian (or the family of a deceased pedestrian) sue the driver? How much can the pedestrian recover? How does car insurance come into play? Read on to learn more.
Can the Pedestrian Sue the Driver?
The answer is almost certainly, “yes.” A pedestrian who is hit by a car can sue the driver if the driver was negligent, and drunk driving is an inherently negligent activity. (Learn more about the concept of legal negligence). So, in the vast majority of cases, a pedestrian who is hit by a drunk driver can sue the driver and get compensation for all losses stemming from the accident.
If the pedestrian dies as a result of the accident, representatives of the pedestrian’s estate can sue the drunk driver in a wrongful death action.
How Much Can an Injured Pedestrian Receive?
It depends entirely on the extent of the pedestrian’s injuries. As a general principle, lawsuits are meant to compensate people for all losses that are attributable to the accident. If a driver hits a pedestrian, and the pedestrian could be reasonably compensated for the injuries with $50,000, the driver has to pay that amount to the pedestrian to make up for the accident.
But the calculation of damages is more complicated than that. There are multiple categories of damages, including:
- medical expenses
- lost wages
- pain and suffering, and
- loss of normal life.
Medical expenses and lost wages are pretty easy to place a dollar amount on, by tracing medical bills incurred and adding up time missed at work, according to the injured person's pay rate. Pain and suffering and loss of normal life are more complicated. How much money is two months of severe back pain worth? The answer is basically, “whatever a jury thinks is reasonable.” Learn more about calculating pain and suffering.
How Does Insurance Come Into Play?
Here is something that most people don’t think about when it comes to lawsuits: most drunk drivers don’t have $50,000 lying around to pay for a pedestrian’s injuries. So, if the driver is not insured, the pedestrian may be able to sue and recover a large verdict, but that would be pretty pointless if the driver doesn't have the money to pay.
That is part of the reason why laws require people to buy car insurance. Although the pedestrian technically sues the driver, in reality, the battle is between the pedestrian and the drunk driver’s car insurance company. If the pedestrian wins a big verdict, the money will probably come from the insurance company, not from the driver.
So, the driver’s insurance policy is critical. In many cases, a pedestrian will have an excellent case against the driver. But if the driver has little or no insurance, the pedestrian's options for financial recovery are limited. If coverage does exist, then the injured pedestrian would be able to collect up to the limits of the policy (let's say the policy limit is $25,000). But for any amount above the policy limit, the drunk driver him or herself would be personally on the hook.
So, let's say an injured pedestrian is awarded a $500,000 jury verdict in a personal injury case. Getting the $25,000 policy limit from the insurance company would be easy, but collecting the rest of the money ($475,000) will be another story, especially if the driver has little in the way of assets.