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Are Drunk Drivers Always at Fault for Car Accidents?

According to a DMV report on alcohol-related car crashes, police reported 8,368 drunk driving accidents in New York in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. Averaged out over the course of the year, that amounts to nearly one accident every hour.  Over 350 of these crashes proved deadly, while non-fatal accidents injured more than 6,000 people.  If you’re ever hit by a drunk driver in New York, you should know about fault and negligence — because depending on the circumstances of the crash, you could be entitled to compensation for your car accident injury.

No-Fault Coverage, Non-Economic Damages, and the Serious Personal Injury Threshold

Before we discuss intoxication and negligence, we should start with an overview of how auto accident injury compensation works in New York.

New York belongs to a minority of states which utilize the no-fault car insurance system.  Under the no-fault system, drivers who are injured in automotive accidents are compensated through their own car insurance company.  This applies regardless of which driver caused the accident, hence the use of the term “no-fault.”  (By comparison, states which use the fault system — that is, most of the states in the U.S. — require injury victims to demonstrate fault.)

No-fault coverage can extend to medical bills and lost earnings, which are known as economic damages because they are hard, quantifiable numbers.  Non-economic damages, or damages which cannot be quantified, include loss of consortium (marital relationship), pain and suffering, and other “non-monetary detriment.”  No-fault coverage in New York does not allow injury victims to recover non-economic damages.  This is provided by N.Y. Ins. Law § 5104(a), which plainly states that “there shall be no right of recovery for non-economic loss, except in the case of a serious injury.”

So what does that involve?

If an accident victim in a no-fault state like New York wishes to pursue compensation for non-economic damages by filing a personal injury lawsuit, his or her injuries must meet certain criteria for severity.  These criteria are collectively known as the “serious injury threshold,” and are slightly different from state to state.  In New York, they are defined by N.Y. Ins. Law § 5102(d) to include:

  • Wrongful death/fatal injuries
  • Dismemberment
  • Significant disfigurement
  • Broken bones (bone fractures)
  • Loss of a fetus
  • “Permanent loss of use of a body organ, member, function or system”
  • “Permanent… limitation of use of a body organ or member” (e.g. traumatic brain injury)
  • “Significant limitation of use of a body function or system”
  • Temporary injuries which prevent the victim from performing his or her typical daily activities for a minimum period of 90 days (within the first 180 days following the accident)

If you were injured in any of the ways described above, you may be able to sue for non-economic damages.  With that in mind, let’s look at the necessary components of a successful personal injury lawsuit and go over how intoxicated driving factors into the situation.

Drunk Driving (DUI/DWI) and Motor Vehicle Negligence

In order for the plaintiff in a car accident lawsuit to be successful, he or she will have to prove several key points.

All drivers, including motorcyclists and commercial truck drivers, have a “duty of care” toward the other motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists with whom they share New York’s streets and highways.  This simply means that all drivers must obey traffic safety laws and exercise a reasonable degree of caution when driving — for instance, slowing down in heavy fog, even though the speed limit may be much higher.

The plaintiff must prove that other driver somehow breached that duty of care.  If another driver engages in driving behaviors which create a foreseeable risk of death or injury to others, he or she may be considered negligent.  Some common examples of negligence could include:

  • Running a red light.
  • Failing to stop at a stop sign or pedestrian crosswalk.
  • Tailgating another vehicle (following too closely).
  • Aggressive driving.
  • Excessive speeding.
  • Failing to yield right-of-way.

Next, the defendant’s breach of the duty of care must have been what caused the car accident to occur.  Here’s where it gets interesting: technically speaking, drunk driving itself is not the cause of a car accident.  It is possible for a drunk driver — while breaking DUI/DWI laws — to be blameless in an accident if the accident was caused by the other driver’s actions.  For example, if the plaintiff rear-ended an intoxicated driver who was stopped at a stop sign, the drunk driver could not be deemed responsible, despite his or her intoxicated state.  Thus, drunk drivers are not automatically at fault in every accident in which they are involved.

That being said, drunk driving does cause delayed reaction time, impaired decision-making, and judgment errors, all of which can easily cause a driver to act negligently — and in turn, to cause an accident.  For example, a drunk driver might deliberately decide to speed or run a red light (or the driver might simply be too drunk to pay attention to the speed limit or traffic light in the first place).

The final component of a personal injury lawsuit is that the defendant’s actions must have resulted in injuries to the plaintiff — in this context, specifically one (or more) of the serious injuries noted by N.Y. Ins. Law § 5102(d).

If you got into an accident with a drunk driver in New York, we encourage you to call our law offices for a free and confidential case assessment.  To schedule a consultation, call the car accident attorneys of Sullivan & Galleshaw at (718) 843-0300 today.


Over our many years practicing personal injury law, our highly experienced legal team has earned a reputation for excellence. Our attorneys have appeared on major media outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC . Our firm’s legal accomplishments have been profiled by the New York Law Journal, the Los Angeles Times, ESPN, and the Associated Press. We have won multiple verdicts in excess of $1 million, making us proud members of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a prestigious organization which admits fewer than 1% of all attorneys in the United States. We were named Super Lawyers in 2011, and enjoy a perfect 10/10 Superb rating on national attorney database Avvo.

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