What Happens If I'm Drunk Driving and Get in an Accident That’s Not My Fault?

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

Driving under the influence (DUI) is illegal in every state. So, anyone who's convicted of a DUI will face penalties that might include fines, jail time, and license suspension. But when a DUI involves an accident, the driver may also be liable for injuries and property damage that result.

Are Drunk Drivers Automatically At Fault?

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol doesn't mean you're automatically at fault for an accident. It's entirely possible for the cause of the accident to be unrelated to the driver's intoxication.

Determining Fault

For a driver to be found liable for injuries or property damage resulting from an accident, the party seeking payment must prove the intoxicated driver was at fault. Legal fault has three components:

  • duty of care
  • breach, and
  • causation.

In the context of driving, the "duty of care" basically means drivers are required to always operate their vehicle with reasonable care. A "breach" of that duty would simply mean the driver did something—or failed to do something—that was unreasonable or careless. Finally, "causation" is established by proving a direct link between the breach of care and the injuries or property damage.

"Negligence Per Se" Laws

Some states have "negligence per se" laws that alter the equation. In these states, the duty of care and breach are automatically established by proving that the driver violated the state's DUI laws. So, in states that have negligence per se laws, the party seeking damages just needs to prove the defendant was guilty of driving under the influence and causation.

Will DUI Penalties be More Severe If I'm Involved in an Accident?

The penalties you'll face for a DUI conviction can be more severe if you were involved in an accident.

Sentencing enhancements. In many states, there are sentencing enhancements that apply when a DUI led to an injury accident. In other words, the possible penalties you face (jail time, fines, and license suspension) are increased.

Plea bargaining and judge's discretion. Prosecutors and judges look to aggravating and mitigating factors when assessing the appropriate sentence for a case. An accident is generally considered an aggravating factor, making it less likely you'll receive a favorable plea bargain from the prosecution or a particularly lenient sentence from a judge.

Getting Legal Help

If you've been arrested for driving under the influence, you should get in contact with an experienced DUI attorney as soon as possible. The consequences of a DUI can be severe, especially when the offense involved an accident. A qualified DUI lawyer can help you navigate the legal system and advise you on how to best handle your situation.

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