Injured by a Drunk Driver in Pennsylvania? A Conviction Won’t Help You Recover CompensationBy Gabriel Levin on November 13th, 2017
It often doesn’t matter how safe you drive, how careful you are after having a drink with dinner, or how much attention you pay to other drivers on the road, a drunk driving accident can happen unexpectedly and in an unpredictable way. According to the Pennsylvania DUI Association, nearly one in three traffic deaths were alcohol-related. This means that DUI-related accidents cause greater than average life-changing injuries as the result of a drunk driver’s reckless behavior. It should be noted that not all traffic accidents are criminal in nature, but DUI-related accidents can result in serious charges, including third-degree murder or vehicular manslaughter. Because the civil and criminal systems of law are different, however, a conviction for a DUI-related crash does not necessarily translate to compensation for your injuries.
Pennsylvania Criminal DUI Laws
In Pennsylvania, a drunk driver falls into one of three levels of DUI offenses. The driver’s previous DUI offenses, the nature of the driver’s offenses, and the driver’s age and license status all make a difference in any criminal or civil charges. The levels are broken down as follows:
- General impairment – Blood alcohol level (“BAC”) from 0.08 to 0.099
- High BAC – 0.10 to 0.159
- Highest BAC – 0.16 and above.
A driver charged with general impairment, even if it is a first, second, or third offense, faces up to two years in prison, fines, license suspension, and forced treatment. The same is true of a high BAC conviction, which is punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor with as many as five years in prison if there are multiple offenses. Even highest BAC offenses are punishable as first degree misdemeanors if there have been multiple convictions. If, however, the driver is a minor, a commercial vehicle driver, a bus driver, or involved in an accident that injures someone or causes property damage, the penalties may increase—even if the driver was only generally impaired.
Pennsylvania Civil Law and DUI Accidents
If you were injured in a DUI-related accident and are seeking compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering in Pennsylvania’s courts, the Commonwealth generally does not treat this as a criminal matter. A judge may order a drunk driver who injured you to pay restitution as a part of the criminal sentence, meaning that you can receive compensation for your out-of-pocket expenses such as medical bills, property damage, and lost wages. If restitution is not ordered at sentencing, then it cannot be ordered afterwards. However, Pennsylvania specifically states that restitution cannot be awarded for your pain and suffering or any intangible damages such as emotional anguish or loss of enjoyment of life. Restitution is solely meant to compensate you for direct out-of-pocket expenses.
Accordingly, if a loved one was killed in a car accident or you were severely disabled as a result, simply compensating you for medical bills that your insurance may have already covered is not enough. Furthermore, it will likely mean very little to you if the offender spends a few months in prison and has his license suspended for a year. You would then need to seek further compensation for your pain and suffering in a civil case, which is a type of litigation brought by private attorneys that cannot result in jail time or criminal punishment for the offender. It can generally only result in a monetary award for you and your family.
The Interplay Between the Civil and Criminal System
Because DUI offenses that result in injury or death are serious, they are almost always prosecuted in criminal court and privately in a civil action for personal injuries or wrongful deaths. In many states, whether at common law or based on a statute, an admission or determination of guilt for a traffic or criminal vehicular offense is admissible in a subsequent civil case to prove the other driver’s negligence or recklessness. However, Pennsylvania is in a minority of states, because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that guilty pleas or convictions for traffic violations are not admissible in a subsequent civil proceeding to prove liability. In fact, in Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court has stated that “[i]t is well-settled that when recklessness or carelessness is at issue, proof of intoxication is relevant, but the mere fact of consuming alcohol is not admissible, being unfairly prejudicial unless it reasonably establishes intoxication.”
Accordingly, your personal injury attorney may present evidence that the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the accident and that this intoxication actually caused the accident. Criminal conviction for a DUI, however, does not necessarily mean that the other driver was negligent in causing an accident, which is why it is not admissible. For example, in an interesting case, a driver was stopped at a red light when she was negligently rear-ended by another driver. The driver who was stopped at the light, however, had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit and pled guilty to a DUI offense, but she was not negligent in causing the accident itself. In this case, her DUI offense could not be admitted to prove her liability in civil court. There was no correlation between the DUI and the accident.
Contact a Philadelphia Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Attorney to Discuss Your Case
If you were injured or a loved one was killed in a Philadelphia DUI accident, you may be confused by the interplay between the criminal case, restitution from that case, and a civil case for wrongful death or personal injuries. Just because a conviction for a DUI may not be used to directly prove negligence in a civil case, the other driver’s blood alcohol level may still have caused the accident. Your Pennsylvania personal injury attorney will simply have to prove this with additional evidence. The Levin Firm has the experienced lawyers you need to help you understand the complexities of Pennsylvania DUI law and get you the compensation you deserve. Contact them today for a free, no-risk consultation online or at (215) 825-5183.