In Georgia in 2008, out of all traffic fatalities, 28% involved a driver who was legally drunk, with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. While the incidence of drunk driving has decreased somewhat over the past couple of decades with stiffer enforcement, it is still too high.
A single instance of drunk driving that results in an accident is enough to end a life, maim a person, and ruin a family. Yet, when evaluating charges, a criminal court takes into consideration a person’s prior “clean” record as well as his character before it sentences the driver. This may result in lenient charges and sentences which are “slaps on the hand,” in comparison to the destruction caused by the drunk driver. Families who have lost loved ones or persons who are injured in a drunk driving accident may find they did not receive justice from the criminal system which may have imposed low criminal penalties.
Civil liability in such cases can give a family or the injured individual the justice they wish for by holding a person financially accountable for his negligence. Even if the evidence of intoxication is not sufficient to carry the criminal burden of proof of "beyond a reasonable doubt," it still can be enough to carry the civil burden of proof of "preponderance of evidence" or "more likely than not."
An injured person can claim compensation from the negligent motorist for a variety of damages:
• Medical expenses already incurred
• Future medical expenses
• Physical pain
• Mental suffering
• Loss/Destruction of property
• Loss of enjoyment of life
• Permanent physical disability
• Lost wages
In addition, punitive damages may be awarded against a drunk driver.
Family members of a person who was killed by a drunk driver may file a wrongful death claim against the negligent motorist. In Georgia, the measure of damages for wrongful death is the "full value of the life."
In limited circumstances, an employer or a bar that served alcohol to a person who was already visibly intoxicated, may be held legally responsible.
Drunk driving accidents take a grave toll on society, from the injuries or deaths of loved ones to the costs of paying for the accidents. Persons who engage in this type of driving should be held legally responsible for their actions.
Ken Shigley is president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia and author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice. He practices law at the Atlanta law firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard. A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he has been listed as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), among the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale). He has broad experience in catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, products liability, spinal cord injury, brain injury and burn injury cases.
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