Drunk driving is, unfortunately, a serious problem in Pennsylvania. In 2015, 345 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in our state, and thousands more were injured. If you were hurt in an accident caused by a drunk driver, then you can sue for monetary compensation to make you “whole.” Even better, you can use the drunk driver’s criminal conviction in several beneficial ways.
Pennsylvania operates a dual track system of courts. In criminal court, the focus is on punishing a defendant convicted of a crime. The state prosecutes DUI drivers, and they face a high burden of proof—proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the defendant is convicted, he will receive punishment in the form of jail time, fines, or both.
In civil court, the focus is on making sure that victims are fairly compensated for their injuries. A defendant can also be punished by being ordered to pay punitive damages, which are in addition to your compensatory damages, but the defendant cannot be put in jail. However, if you’ve been injured by an intoxicated driver, you can bring a personal injury lawsuit in civil court even before a criminal case has been made against the defendant.
When you bring a civil lawsuit, you will probably file a lawsuit based on “negligence.” To prove negligence, you’ll need to present evidence that the defendant owed you a duty of reasonable care and that they fell below it, causing your injuries in the process.
Proof of the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will help you establish that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care when they were driving. In Pennsylvania, an adult with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is legally intoxicated. For drivers under 21, any amount over 0.02 qualifies as being legally intoxicated. It will be very difficult for the defendant to slide out from under the conclusion that they were negligent when they got behind the wheel of a vehicle with an elevated BAC.
You won’t automatically win your civil lawsuit because the defendant was convicted of DUI. In particular, you still need to show that the drunk driving caused your injuries. Depending on the circumstances, this could be relatively easy or quite difficult.
For example, you might have suffered a severe back injury in the accident. However, you also might have always had back problems and even have gone under the knife several years before in an attempt to alleviate the pain. In this situation, the defendant might argue that your pre-existing condition is really to blame for your injury, not getting hit by the defendant’s car.
You also might not have followed your doctor’s orders after suffering your injuries. If a doctor requires bed rest but you’re seen out shopping or partying on a boat, then you might have made things worse. Although you may still receive compensation, the amount you receive can be drastically reduced.
Pennsylvania allows you to choose between fault-based and no-fault insurance coverage. No-fault insurance means that you generally can’t sue a driver after an automobile accident. Instead, you rely on your own personal injury protection (PIP) benefits to pay for medical expenses. You’ll be reimbursed your medical bills; however, the maximum amount of benefits is often quite low due to policy limits. Once you exhaust your PIP benefits, you will need to turn to other sources if you need more compensation. For example, if the other driver carried Bodily Injury Liability, then you may be able to get more money. Or you will need to submit medical bills to your health insurance.
If you have fault-based insurance, you can file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company to cover your losses. However, losses from serious injuries can exceed their policy limits, as well, or an insurance company may not be willing to offer a settlement that is adequate. In these serious cases, you have the right to file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver in civil court.
Because of how gruesome drunk driving accidents can be, it’s entirely possible that you might have suffered a sufficiently serious injury to make a lawsuit possible. However, only an experienced Philadelphia personal injury lawyer can assess your situation.
Generally, your PIP benefits typically carry copays and deductibles, so you end up not being fully compensated for your medical expenses. However, crime victims are exempt from paying copays and deductibles under the state’s Crimes Compensation Act, and victims in a DUI crash qualify as crime victims. You must apply with the state’s Attorney General’s office within a year of your accident.
Once found eligible, you might also qualify for other benefits such as compensation for wage losses, funeral expenses, or permanent disability. The Victim’s Compensation Assistance Program can also reimburse mental health and grief counseling as well as property loss.
If you can sue, then you will be negotiating with a drunk driver’s insurance company to receive compensation for your injuries. You should certainly seek punitive damages, which are available when the defendant’s conduct is outrageous—and driving while intoxicated certainly qualifies.
Although car insurance companies are not required to pay punitive damages, they do have a duty to protect their insured from paying punitive damages. In practice, this means that the insurance company usually offers the full amount of their policy limit in exchange for a release of liability. All in all, a drunk driving conviction can help increase the amount of any settlement you receive.
Drunk drivers cause massive damage on Philadelphia’s roads each year, and the state will prosecute and convict the most serious offenders. At The Levin Firm, we can help you use the conviction to hold the driver legally responsible for your injuries and maximize your benefits. Call us today at 215-825-5183 or fill out our online contact form. Initial consultations are free.
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