What To Do If You’re Injured By a Drunk Driver in California

California drunk drugged driving

DUI is a serious offense, and can cause serious injury or fatality. Here’s what to do if you or a loved one are involved in a drunk driving accident.

Do you know how to spot a drunk driver? These tips can help you steer clear if you need to. If you were injured, here’s how to get help and what the insurance will and won’t cover.

Almost all of us know someone whose life has been affected by drunk driving.

California has more than 1,000 drunk driving deaths per year, according to recent statistics. In fact, drunk driving makes up 29% of the state’s traffic fatalities, and it ranks 25th in the nation for drunk driving fatalities.¹

Driving under the influence (DUI) isn’t just about alcohol. Substances that include both illegal and legal drugs such as prescription or over-the counter-medications or marijuana can all impair your ability to drive safely.

In fact, driving while impaired is a crime. A first offense for driving while impaired in California can involve a fine of up to $10,000.

Facing factsThe California Highway Patrol estimates that when you include attorney fees and other legal fees, higher insurance premiums, lost wages for court dates, and related costs, a single drunk or drugged driving infraction can cost up to $13,500.

California impaired driving laws

If you’ve ever read the fine print on a box of basic cold medicine, it probably advises against driving while taking the drug. That’s because drugs commonly used for colds, allergies, or to calm nerves or muscles can cause drowsiness.

Not everyone reacts the same way to a drug or alcohol, which is why it’s important to allow yourself time to discover how your body will handle any substance before you plan to drive or do any task that requires close attention and quick reflexes.

California’s law isn’t about just drunk driving. It also refers to “DUI of alcohol and/or drugs,” which include illegal drugs and legal prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

Over-the-counter and prescription medications or supplements

Here’s what to look out for if you’re planning to drive after taking any medication:

  • Drugs like cold medicine (decongestants), hay fever or allergy medicines, or medications to calm nerves or muscles can make you drowsy.
  • Be aware of how a medicine might interact with alcohol. Some drugs’ side effects are heightened when combined with alcohol, or alcohol could cause unexpected effects.
  • “Uppers,” diet pills, and energy supplements can increase a driver’s alertness. But they can also cause nervousness, dizziness, and a lack of concentration or impaired vision.
  • Avoid any drug that says “may cause drowsiness or dizziness” if you intend to drive.

Alcohol or marijuana in a vehicle

California prohibits the use of alcohol or cannabis (smoking or ingesting) while driving or when you’re a passenger in a vehicle. Any alcohol in the vehicle must be in a full, sealed, and unopened container. If there’s an open container of alcohol, it must be transported in the car’s trunk where there are no passengers.

The same goes for cannabis. You cannot have an open container of cannabis or a product that contains cannabis when you’re driving a motor vehicle.

You may not drive any motor vehicle if your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is at or over these limits:

California Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits
21 years old or older 0.08% or higher
Less than 21 years old 0.01% or higher
On DUI probation (any age) 0.01% or higher
Driving a commercial driver’s licensed (CDL) vehicle (whether or not the driver has a CDL) 0.04% or higher
When a passenger for hire is in the vehicle 0.04% or higher

Drivers under age 21

If you’re under 21:

  • You’re not allowed to carry liquor, beer, or wine in a vehicle unless accompanied by a parent and the container is full, sealed, and unopened.
  • Your vehicle can be impounded for up to 30 days if you’re in possession of alcohol in the car. You can also be subject to a fine up to $1,000 and lose driving privileges for up to 1 year. If you’re not already licensed, the DMV can delay your driver’s license for up to 1 year.
  • Your license can be revoked for 1 year if you’re convicted of driving with a BAC of 0.01% or higher, or if you’re driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Criminal penalties for drunk driving

Drunk driving is a crime.

The biggest determinant of a penalty for drunk driving will be whether or not it’s a first offense. But there’s no way to know for sure how many drinks will be below the legal BAC limit.

A person’s BAC is unique, and it varies based on the circumstances of the drinking involved.

These factors can affect your BAC:

  • Gender
  • Body size/weight
  • Number of drinks and type of alcohol (strength)
  • Time period during which drinks were consumed (for example, “chugging” vs. “sipping”)
  • How much food you ate before/during drinking
  • Certain medical conditions that affect how the body metabolizes alcohol

So, if you sip a glass of wine with dinner, it might affect your BAC differently than if you chug a beer on an empty stomach.

California DUI penalties
1st offense
  • Up to 6 months in jail
  • $390-$1,000 in fines
  • 6 months’ license suspension
  • Up to 6 months with interlock ignition device (IID) or 1 year of restricted license
2nd offense
  • 96 hours to 1 year in jail
  • $390-$1,000 in fines
  • 2 years of license suspension
  • 1 year of IID or restricted license
3rd offense
  • 120 days to 1 year in jail
  • Up to $1,800 in fines
  • 3 years’ license suspension
  • 2 years of IID or restricted license

The bottom line:

Don’t drink and drive. If you’re going to drink, plan to have a designated driver or alternate ride home.

Enjuris tip: The California implied consent law specifies that a driver must submit to at least 1 chemical test if lawfully arrested for suspected DUI. If the driver refuses, it could be considered an admission of guilt.

A driver may decline a field sobriety test, and the officer would rely on other evidence to determine whether there’s cause for an arrest.

Civil damages for drunk driving accidents

If you’re involved in a car accident that was the other driver’s fault, you’re normally entitled to damages that include:

  • Costs for medical treatment (past and future)
  • Costs for lost wages or earning capacity
  • Pain and suffering (and other non-economic damages)

However, if the other driver was drunk, there are additional elements to consider.

Driving under the influence of alcohol is a misdemeanor (California Vehicle Code §23152a). That means if the driver is arrested for DUI, they’re automatically considered to be negligent.

But let’s back up a minute...

In most civil cases in California, you can recover compensatory damages, which include economic and/or non-economic personal injury damages. A compensatory damages award is money that repays you for financial losses or costs related to the injury, and it includes pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life.

In most car accident lawsuits, it’s difficult to receive an award for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are a “punishment” for a defendant whose behavior is particularly egregious or careless. Often, punitive damages are awarded in lawsuits where the defendant is a large corporation, and it’s designed to serve as a deterrent to further bad behavior, and also to deter (or be a warning to) other companies from acting in that manner.

California uses 3 factors to determine if punitive damages are warranted:

  1. Reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.
  2. The amount of compensatory damages awarded or actual harm suffered by the plaintiff.
  3. The defendant’s financial condition.

However, one lawsuit changed everything when it came to punitive damages in California.

Case Study: Taylor v. Superior Court (598 P. 2d 854 - Cal: Supreme Court 1979)

In this landmark case, the California Supreme Court extended punitive damages to lawsuits against drunk drivers.

The Court said that an award of punitive damages can be justified under a theory of conscious disregard if the plaintiff proves that the defendant was “aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he willfully and deliberately failed to avoid” them.

The Court went on to say that consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication, knowing that you’re going to operate a motor vehicle, exhibits conscious disregard for the safety of others.

Therefore, a plaintiff can make a claim for punitive damages if:

  1. The defendant’s drunk driving caused the accident, and
  2. The act of driving while intoxicated was an aggravating circumstance.
In a later case that relied on Taylor, it was decided that an insurance company isn’t required to pay punitive damages in a drunk driving case. The defendant’s insurance company might be obligated to pay for any compensatory damages, but the defendant would need to pay the punitive damages out of their own pocket.

How to recognize a drunk driver

The biggest hazard about drunk driving is that an intoxicated driver can kill an innocent person (or a car full of people) in an instant. Part of being a safe and defensive driver is knowing the signs for when another car on the road might have a drunk driver at the wheel.

Here’s what a police officer might look for to determine if a driver is drunk:

  • Trouble staying in the lane
  • Failing to maintain speed, including sudden acceleration or driving very slowly
  • Failing to adapt driving to accommodate changes in surroundings and driving conditions
  • Inability to judge the road and proximity to other objects
  • Sharp or jerky turns, sudden maneuvers, and over-correction of steering
  • Running over curbs, weaving, or straddling landes
  • Crossing the center line or a double-yellow line
  • Stopping short of a traffic signal, overshooting the signal or stop sign, or abruptly stopping in the road
  • Failing to signal, or making signals that don’t reflect what the driver actually does
  • Night driving without lights or failure to dim high-beams

What to do if you spot a drunk driver

If you’re driving and suspect the driver of another vehicle is drunk (or driving unsafely for any reason), follow these 6 steps:

  1. Stay far behind the suspected drunk driver. Drunk drivers often stop abruptly.
  2. Get out of the way, and don’t pass the car. Keep as much distance as possible between your vehicle and theirs in case they make any sudden moves.
  3. Be sure you and your passengers are all correctly and safely wearing your seat belts.
  4. Stop and pull off the road if it’s safe to do so.
  5. Call 911 and report the location, direction of travel, description of the car, and the behavior of the driver to the local or state police.
  6. Never attempt to stop the drunk driver’s car on your own — that’s for the police to do!
If you’re with friends or coworkers and someone is about to drive but has consumed too much alcohol, be a friend and do your best to stop them.

Take their keys, offer a ride home (if you’re not drinking), offer to call a taxi or rideshare (like Uber or Lyft) for them, or offer a safe place for them to stay until the alcohol wears off.

If the person about to drive (or already driving) is a stranger, don’t risk your own safety to stop them. Call the police, instead. You might be afraid for other people’s safety if you see a drunk person get behind the wheel, but the police are best-equipped to handle a situation. Provide as many details as you can (from where the person left, what road they’re on, what direction they’re headed, a license plate number, etc.) but don’t try to apprehend someone you don’t know.

What to do if you’ve been injured by a drunk driver

If you’re in a collision with a drunk driver, proceed as you would after any car accident. If your injuries are fully covered by the other driver’s insurance and the claim settles easily and completely, you likely don’t need to do anything more.

But if the insurance company isn’t willing to pay your claim to full satisfaction, or if you need to file a personal injury lawsuit for damages not covered by insurance, you need to call a California car accident lawyer.

Consider using our free California Personal Injury Lawyer Directory to find an experienced and compassionate attorney who is ready to navigate your legal process and recover the damages you need.

¹ Mothers Against Drunk Driving, state statistics

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