A young man is dead after an allegedly intoxicated driver, who was also allegedly street racing, crashed into a grove of large trees.
Police say the wreck occurred on H Street near Corral Canyon Road. According to investigators, 22-year-old Jose Ramirez was racing against 22-year-old Nicholas Nesbitt at speeds exceeding 100mph. After Mr. Ramirez apparently lost control of his vehicle while negotiating a curve, he careened off the road and into a pair of magnolia trees in the Chula Vista area of San Diego County. A backseat passenger, whose name was not released, was declared dead at the scene; Mr. Ramirez and a front seat passenger were not injured. Mr. Nesbitt, and the other people in his vehicle, exited their car and tried to help the victims, but to no avail.
Officers arrested Mr. Nesbitt for DUI; Mr. Ramirez faces DUI manslaughter and street racing charges.
First Party Liability in Alcohol-Related Crashes
Alcohol is a factor in about a third of the fatal car crashes in California. Even one drink slows reaction time and impairs judgement ability, because alcohol is a depressant that often gives people a sense of euphoria. As alochol consumption increases, the adverse affects increase commensurately. If there are serious injuries involved, the plaintiff must almost always use circumstantial evidence to prove alcohol impairment, because if the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is hospitalized, there is often no way to administer a breath or blood test. Even though California is an implied consent state, which means that all drivers theoretically give consent to provide chemical samples when they sign their drivers’ licenses, people still have the right to refuse such tests, at least in most cases.
Fortunately, the standard of proof is much lower in civil court than in criminal court. So whereas prosecutors are often significantly handicapped if they must rely on circumstantial evidence, it is relatively easy to prove impairment in civil court by introducing evidence of:
- Bloodshot eyes,
- Unsteady balance,
- Slurred speech, and
- Lack of muscle coordination.
If the tortfeasor exhibited any of these physical symptoms in the minutes or hours prior to the crash, a reasonable jury can conclude that the tortfeasor was impaired at the moment of impact. That’s because the plaintiff must only establish facts by a preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not.
In many other cases, a breath or blood chemical sample provides direct evidence of alcohol impairment. Additionally, if the tortfeasor is convicted of an alcohol-related offense, or even charged with one in some cases, the negligence per se (negligence “as such”) shortcut often applies. Typically, negligence plaintiffs must prove five elements (duty, breach, cause, foreseeability, and damages). But in negligence per se cases, the plaintiffs must only establish:
- Statutory Violation: DUI, or any other safety violation like running a stop sign or speeding, establishes a rebuttable presumption of negligence. So, the burden of proof shifts and the tortfeasors must prove that they were not negligent.
- Cause: A ticket for not wearing a seatbelt does not create a presumption of negligence, but a cellphone ticket does count.
- Damages: According to the statute, “The person suffering the death or the injury to his person or property [must be]one of the class of persons for whose protection the statute, ordinance, or regulation was adopted.”
These damages normally include compensation for both economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as emotional distress.
Third Party Liability in Alcohol-Related Crashes
Recently, the California Legislature sharply curtailed the dram shop law by removing the strict liability provision, unless the tortfeasor was under 21. Basically, it is no longer illegal for a bar, restaurant, or tavern to sell alcohol to persons that are obviously intoxicated, unless they are also under 21. Similarly, social hosts are liable for damages only if they sell or provide alcohol, either directly or indirectly, to minors.
However, both dram shops and social hosts may nevertheless be liable under a negligent undertaking theory. Assume 28-year-old Tommy Tortfeasor has been drinking at a New Years’ Eve party, and Henry Host becomes concerned that Tommy may be impaired. Henry takes Tommy’s keys, refuses to let him drive home, and hires an Uber for Tommy. But, as it is New Years’ Eve, there is a delay. Tommy soon gets tired of waiting, takes his keys while Henry isn’t looking, and crashes into another vehicle on his way home.
Under these facts, Henry may be liable for the damages that Tommy caused, even though neither the dram shop nor social host laws apply. Essentially, if people voluntarily undertake legal obligations, they also assume a duty of reasonable care. If they fail to fulfill the duty they assumed, they may be liable for any damages that occur because of their breach.
Defenses in Alcohol-Related Crashes
Insurance companies use any tactic within the law to reduce compensation to victims. In alcohol-related crashes, insurance company lawyers often invoke the assumption of the risk defense. They argue that a person who gets in a car with an intoxicated driver cannot later sue for damages. For the theory to apply, the victim must voluntarily assume a known risk.
In the above story, an argument could be made that the passengers assumed the risk of injury, if they knew that the drivers were racing. But in other alcohol-related crashes, the defense probably does not apply. Many times, there is no voluntariness, because the passenger has no other way home. In other situations, the passenger did not assume a known risk, because passengers do not assume the risk of car crash injuries simply because they travel on the road.
Although alcohol-related crashes cause serious injuries, it is sometimes not easy to obtain fair compensation. For a free consultation with an aggressive personal injury attorney in San Diego who fights for you, contact the Injury Trial Lawyers, APC. Se habla espanol.