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Learn how New Jersey DUI laws and penalties can affect your personal injury claim
Across the country, officials are cracking down on drunk driving (also known as “driving while intoxicated”, or DWI). New Jersey’s latest drunk driving laws took effect in December 2019.
It’s against the law to operate a motor vehicle if your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or higher. However, even if your BAC is less than the legal limit, you can still be convicted of a DWI offense. If you cause an accident or are driving unsafely and there’s any alcohol detected, you can be convicted of a DWI even if your BAC is lower than 0.08%.
If an officer suspects that you’re driving while intoxicated, they’ll probably administer a Breathalyzer test. A driver can blow into the Breathalyzer device, which determines their BAC at that time.
Types of drunk driving in New Jersey
These are some terms you might need to know about New Jersey drinking and driving laws:
- Operating a vehicle: DWI is based on intent to drive a vehicle after consuming alcohol. If a person has physical control over the vehicle but hasn’t actually moved it, they can still be convicted of a DWI.
- Under the influence: This category includes substances other than alcohol that can still affect a person’s ability to drive. For example, narcotics, hallucinogens, habit-producing drugs, and even some prescription or over-the-counter medications can result in being “under the influence” if they diminish the person’s mental or physical capability to drive.
- Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC): Each person convicted of a DWI must participate in drug and alcohol screening and complete treatment through the New Jersey IDRC.
New Jersey uses the terms “DWI” and “DUI” interchangeably. Some states have different laws and penalties for each term, but New Jersey treats a DWI and a DUI offense the same way.
What are DWI and drunk driving laws in New Jersey?
New Jersey’s most recent DWI law no longer suspends licenses for all first offenders, but it does require any motorist convicted of DWI to install an ignition interlock device. An ignition interlock device (IID) is a Breathalyzer device that’s installed in a vehicle and immobilizes it if the driver’s breath registers too much alcohol.
Under this law, a first offender whose BAC is less than 0.15% will not automatically have their license suspended, but they will be required to have an ignition interlock device for between 3 months and a year. Their car won’t start if the device reads a BAC of 0.05% or higher.
A first offender whose BAC is higher than 0.15% will receive a license suspension of 4 to 6 months and is required to have an ignition interlock for an additional 9 to 15 months. If the person receives a second offense, their license can be suspended for up to 2 years and an interlock device is required for 2 to 4 years.
The interlock device can also monitor a driver’s BAC while the person is actively driving. It will randomly prompt the driver to take a test. If the BAC is above the limit, the device allows the driver time to pull off the road and park before shutting down the vehicle. The device also records the results of each breath test, and the data will be sent to the state at 2-month intervals.
New Jersey DWI penalties
New Jersey classifies DWI offenses as Tier I, Tier II, or Tier II. The consequences for each varies:
|First DWI offense|
BAC of 0.08%-0.09%
BAC of 0.10%-0.14%
BAC of 0.15% or higher
|Second DWI offense|
|Third or subsequent DWI offense (within 10 years of second conviction)|
If you refuse a Breathalyzer test, you might face additional fines and a 1-year license suspension. You might also face additional penalties for possession of an open container in your vehicle’s passenger compartment, or if you’re driving drunk with a minor (under 17 years old) passenger.
One last point:
If you’re in an accident while driving drunk, your auto insurance policy won’t cover you. Car insurance doesn’t cover an accident caused by intentional misconduct.
Your insurance company can argue that drinking and driving is intentional — because you made the choice to drink and made the choice to drive. You knew or should’ve known that drinking and driving is dangerous and puts yourself and others at risk for injury.
So if you’re in an accident while driving drunk, you’ll be responsible for paying the costs out of pocket.
Personal injury lawsuits from drunk driving accidents
Penalties are stiff for a person who drives drunk.
But what about those who are the victims — not the perpetrators — in a drunk driving accident?
First, if you’re involved in an accident and you suspect that the other driver is drunk, don’t try to apprehend the person on your own. Call 911, let the dispatcher know that you believe the other driver is drunk, and wait for the police to arrive at the scene. If the other driver leaves the scene, try to get their license plate number, a description of the vehicle, and other physical characteristics so the driver can be identified.
All New Jersey drivers are required to have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance to cover your injuries regardless of who was at fault for the accident. But if the injuries are severe, they might exceed policy limits.
Civil vs. criminal DWI claims
The person who caused a drunk driving crash will be charged with a DWI, which can either be a traffic or criminal offense. This is handled by law enforcement and the district attorney.
A judge might order a criminal defendant to pay restitution to a victim, but it’s typically less than the cost for the victim’s full injuries. In order to recover costs for a personal injury that’s above the amount covered by your insurance, you’ll need to file a civil claim.
It’s important for an accident victim to cooperate with law enforcement and the judicial system in prosecuting a DWI offense. If the driver is convicted of a DWI, the conviction becomes a fact that’s used to support the civil claim and can help the court in determining the amount of your damages.
A conviction also helps the victim because it can support your claim for pain and suffering or other emotional distress. You might even be able to recover punitive damages in addition to your economic damages (medical treatment, lost wages, etc.).
After a drunk driving accident, you’re entitled to recover costs for:
- Medical treatment
- Lost wages (past and future)
- Rehabilitation and ongoing therapies
- Property loss or damage
- Household services (including cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc.)
- Pain and suffering or other emotional distress
If the driver’s behavior was especially reckless, you might be able to recover punitive damages, which serve to punish a defendant for their wrongdoing and act as a deterrent to repeating the actions.
A personal injury lawsuit for a drunk driving crash can be complicated because there might be more than 1 defendant.
New Jersey’s Dram Shop Law also allows an injured person to seek damages from a business that sold the substance to a drunk driver if:
- The driver was visibly intoxicated when they were sold or served the alcohol, or
- The driver was under the age of 21.
Social host liability is similar to the Dram Shop Law, but it applies to a private person (not a business) who supplies alcohol to guests at a private party or in their home. The social host law would apply if any of the following conditions are true:
- The driver was visibly intoxicated and the host should’ve known their condition.
- Beverages were provided “under circumstances manifesting reckless disregard for the consequences.”
- Serving the beverages led to unreasonable risk of harm for individuals or property.
- The accident involved a vehicle that left the host’s home after the driver was served alcohol at a party.
Under both the Dram Shop Law and social host laws, the person who drove drunk cannot sue the host or vendor who provided the alcohol for damages.
How to spot a drunk driver
Your best defense to avoid becoming a victim of a drunk driving injury is to know the signs of a drunk driver. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) offers these common signs of drunk driving:
- Quick acceleration or deceleration
- Weaving, swerving or drifting in and out of lanes
- Driving on the shoulder, median, or in another area that’s not intended for cars
- Near misses — almost hitting an object or other vehicle
- Erratic braking (stopping for no reason)
- Signaling that’s inconsistent with actions (or not signaling at all)
- Slow response to traffic signals or other things on the road
- Driving at night without headlights
- Driving too slowly for the speed limit
- Abrupt or illegal turns or other maneuvers
- Driving on the wrong side of the road
Most importantly, don’t be a drunk driver! Always make sure you have a designated driver. If you’re heading out (or drinking at home), be sure that someone in your party knows they’re the designated driver and that they’re not planning to drink any alcohol. Alcohol consumption affects everyone differently, and even a small amount can affect your ability to drive safely.
If you end up drinking even though you didn’t plan to, find a safe ride home. Either call a sober friend or family member, or use a taxi or rideshare service (for example, Uber or Lyft).
When to call a New Jersey car accident lawyer
If you’ve been in any car accident — especially one that involves a drunk driver — a lawyer will help you get the compensation you need for financial recovery.
If you were charged with a drunk driving offense, you might want to call a criminal defense attorney. If you don’t have access to a defense lawyer, the court system will assign one for you.
For civil claims, you can use the free Enjuris personal injury lawyer directory to find a New Jersey attorney near you to help you negotiate the best possible insurance claim and file a lawsuit if necessary.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.