For a motorist who commits to safe driving, few events are more infuriating than suffering a collision with a driver impaired by alcohol. Nonetheless, all Utah drivers are at some risk of an altercation with a drunk driver every time they exit their driveways. With that risk in mind, it is worthwhile to understand your options in the aftermath of a collision with a drunk driver. Some alternatives may surprise you.
Over five years ending in 2021, Utah averaged 56 deaths per year due to alcohol-related auto accidents. The state sees nearly 2,000 alcohol-related vehicle collisions occur in a typical year, along with over 8,000 arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol. While these numbers compare well with the rest of the nation, the statistics still represent tragedies and stand as a compelling case for sensible motoring. In 2017, these results spurred the state legislature to revise Utah’s drunk driving statutes.
Utah’s drunk driving laws are among the toughest in the nation. Alone among states, Utah defines driving under the influence at 0.05 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood. All other states peg the blood alcohol level at 0.08 g/dl. For drivers under age 21, Utah considers any detectable amount of alcohol as a DUI infraction.
In Utah, a first-time DUI carries a fine of at least $1,310 and a four-month license suspension. First offenders must also spend at least two days in jail or perform 48 hours of community service. A second offense merits a $1,560 fine, a two-year license suspension and at least five days behind bars. Third offenses trigger at least two months in jail and up to five years in a state prison.
Utah is among a handful of states that allow plaintiffs to pursue damages against businesses and individuals who serve liquor to persons who then proceed to cause injury on the state’s roads.
Dram shop laws take their name from the British slang term for taverns. Under a dram shop law, a licensed liquor seller may bear liability for serving alcohol to a customer who injures another person. Utah’s dram shop law renders liquor sellers liable if they serve alcohol to patrons who meet any of these tests:
While the statute’s tests are straightforward, proving that an establishment failed its obligation often requires testimony from multiple reliable witnesses.
Utah’s statutes spell out narrower liability for individuals who serve alcohol to guests who proceed to cause injury. Private individuals only incur liability if they serve liquor to persons under age 21. Therefore, a person injured by an over-21 drunk driver may not pursue compensation from the driver’s social host under any condition.
Injury at the hands of a substance-impaired driver does not automatically entitle a Utah resident to pursue compensation with a lawsuit. An injured person must first deal with the state’s auto insurance system and then surmount Utah’s negligence standards.
Utah requires all licensed drivers to carry an insurance policy with at least $3,000 of coverage for injury in an automobile accident. In the wake of an injury-causing accident, every driver involved must begin the compensation process by filing a claim with their insurance carrier. The state requires this step regardless of who might have been at fault, hence the name no-fault insurance.
Unless an accident causes permanent injury or medical bills above $3,000, an injured person may not step outside of the no-fault system. If you believe your injuries are severe enough to meet either test, this is the time to consult with a personal injury attorney. An attorney can help you file a claim with the drunk driver’s insurer or pursue compensation in Utah’s court system.
For a person whose injuries exceed the no-fault limits, the next compensation hurdle is the state’s modified comparative negligence rule. In a vehicle collision, more than one driver may bear partial responsibility for the incident. Under comparative negligence, a judge or jury assigns percentages of fault to the involved parties. The total of all parties’ negligence always equals 100%.
In Utah, plaintiffs — persons who file lawsuits — may only recover damages if their level of fault is 49% or lower. Any level above that threshold precludes any damages. Further, plaintiffs who bear some measure of fault will see their damages reduced by the same court-determined percentage. While every case is unique, both judges and juries tend to extend little sympathy to alcohol-impaired drivers who provoke injuries.
If your injuries surpass the no-fault limit and your attorney agrees that the majority of fault lies with the drunk driver, you may pursue compensation in line with the severity of your injuries. Your attorney may begin by filing a claim with the drunk driver’s insurer, a process known as a third-party claim. With compelling evidence, this step may produce fair compensation by itself.
If your attorney judges the insurer’s response as inadequate, the next move is to seek compensation in Utah’s courts with a lawsuit. A lawsuit does not guarantee a trial; nearly all personal injury lawsuits end with a settlement agreement. Nevertheless, a handful of cases proceed to the courtroom, and you should select an attorney with the proven ability to press a case in court if necessary.
While your auto accident attorney handles your civil action, the state of Utah also pursues criminal charges against drunk drivers. Drunk driving actions usually resolve relatively quickly, but a few cases involve complex issues and may proceed for several months. Because a criminal action may establish helpful evidence for your cause, your attorney will time your filings with an eye on the state’s proceedings.
Lawsuits and third-party insurance claims always involve compensatory damages, dollars to compensate a victim for another party’s negligence. In civil cases, punitive damages serve a different mission: deterring repeat instances of the behavior that injured the plaintiff. Consistent with its stiff criminal penalties and dram shop laws, Utah is relatively friendly to plaintiffs seeking punitive damages from drunk drivers. Nonetheless, there are practical considerations that limit their pursuit.
Unless the drunk driver in question has substantial wealth, there is little reason to pursue punitive damages. For plaintiffs, punitive damages are subject to federal and state income taxes. Further, when awards exceed $50,000, the state of Utah claims half of all punitive damages above that threshold. Your attorney can evaluate the likelihood of success of pursuing punitive damages and walk you through your options.
Representing Utah residents injured by drunk drivers is a core mission of Fielding Law. Our attorneys specialize in seeking fair compensation for persons injured by another party’s negligence. Communication is a guiding principle for Fielding Law, and you will have direct access to the attorney who represents you. Case evaluations are free, and you will owe us nothing unless we recover money for you. If you or a loved one face the challenges of an injury, we invite you to contact us today.