Washington DUI Laws, Penalties & Drunk Driving Injury Lawsuits

Washington DUI laws

Can you sue someone for driving under the influence in the Evergreen State?

Every day, almost 30 people die in drunk driving accidents in the United States. Find out what laws Washington has in place to discourage drunk and drugged driving, how to spot an impaired driver, and what to do if you’re involved in an accident.
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Driver impairment due to alcohol or drugs is the number one contributing factor in Washington fatal car crashes and is involved in nearly half of all traffic fatalities.

In 2020, there were 124 fatal crashes involving alcohol or drug impairment in Washington state, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. In the same year, there were an additional 581 serious-injury crashes involving alcohol or drug impairment.

Accidents caused by alcohol or drugs are sometimes treated differently than other car accidents because there’s often a criminal charge component in addition to any civil litigation and insurance claims.

Let’s take a closer look.

What constitutes driving under the influence in Washington?

Driving under the influence (DUI) refers to operating a motor vehicle while affected by alcohol or drugs (including marijuana and prescription medication).

There are 2 types of DUI charges in Washington: per se DUI and impairment DUI.

Per se DUI

You can be charged with a DUI if the result of a breath or blood test shows any of the following:

  • A blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or higher for adults (21 and over)
  • A BAC of .04% or higher for commercial vehicle drivers
  • A BAC of .02 or higher for minors (under 21)
  • A THC concentration of 5 nanograms (ng) or more per milliliter of blood

Impairment DUI

You can be charged with a DUI if you are “affected” by alcohol or drugs while operating a motor vehicle, even if you consumed less than the legal limit.

How does a court decide if a driver is affected by alcohol or drugs?

The Washington Supreme Court looked at this exact question in Peralta v. State and explained that:

“A defendant may be said to be affected by [alcohol or drugs] if evidence beyond a reasonable doubt establishes that [alcohol or drugs] has so far affected his nervous system, brain, or muscles, so as to impair, to an appreciable degree, his ability to operate his car in the manner that an ordinary prudent and cautious man, in the full possession of his faculties, using reasonable care, would operate or drive a similar vehicle.”

Evidence that may be used to support a decision that a person is affected by alcohol or drugs may include:

  • Erratic driving
  • Poor performance on a field sobriety test
  • Slurred speech
  • Odd behavior
  • An admission of being impaired
The effects of blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
BAC Typical effects Predictable effects on driving
.02 Some loss of judgment, relaxation, slight body warmth, altered mood A decline in visual functions (rapid tracking of a moving target) and a decline in the ability to perform 2 tasks at the same time
.05 Exaggerated movement, some loss of small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes), impaired judgment, lowered alertness, the release of inhibition Reduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, reduced response to emergency driving situation
.08 Muscle coordination becomes poor (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing), harder to detect danger; judgment, self-control, reasoning, and memory are impaired Concentration, short-term memory loss, speed control, reduced information processing capability (e.g., signal detection, visual search), impaired perception
.10 Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, slurred speech, poor coordination, and slowed thinking Reduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
.15 Far less muscle control than normal, vomiting may occur (unless this level is reached slowly or a person has developed a tolerance for alcohol), major loss of balance Substantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task, and in necessary visual and auditory information processing

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


Washington’s implied consent law requires anyone who operates a vehicle to submit to a sobriety test if stopped by a law enforcement officer who has reasonable grounds to believe the person has been driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If the person refuses to submit to a test, their license will automatically be suspended for 1 year and evidence of their refusal can be used against them in a criminal trial.

Penalties for driving under the influence in Washington

The penalties for a DUI in Washington depend on the number of prior offenses (if any) and the amount of alcohol or drugs in the person’s system. The numbers below are mandatory minimums and maximums.

Penalty 1st offense 2nd offense 3rd offense
Jail Up to 364 days 30-364 days 90-364 days
Fine $350-$5,000 $500-$5,000 $1,000–$5,000
License suspension 90 days 2 years 3 years

Individuals who have a BAC of .15% or more can be charged with an aggravated DUI. Aggravated DUI convictions carry enhanced penalties (roughly double the jail time and fine). Similarly, individuals who are transporting a child under the age of 16 years old while under the influence may receive enhanced penalties.

If you’re convicted of a DUI, you’re required to get an alcohol/drug assessment from a Washington state-certified agency. If the report indicates that you have substance abuse or dependence concerns, you’ll need to take a treatment class.

How to spot a drunk driver

It’s not always easy to distinguish a drunk driver from a distracted driver. Regardless, your reaction should be the same: STAY FAR AWAY.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has compiled some common signs of driving while under the influence to help you spot a drunk driver:

  • Quick acceleration or deceleration
  • Tailgating
  • Weaving or zig-zagging across the road
  • Driving anywhere other than on a road designated for vehicles
  • Almost striking an object, curb, or vehicle
  • Stopping without cause or erratic braking
  • Drifting in and out of traffic lanes
  • Signaling that is inconsistent with the driver’s actions
  • Slow response to traffic signals
  • Straddling the center lane marker
  • Driving with headlights off at night
  • Swerving
  • Driving slower than 10 mph below the speed limit
  • Turning abruptly or illegally
  • Driving into opposing traffic on the wrong side of the road

DUI-related accidents and personal injury lawsuits

If you’re injured in a car accident caused by an intoxicated driver, you can file an insurance claim as you would in any other car accident. You may need to file a personal injury lawsuit against the intoxicated driver if:

  • The driver is uninsured (and you don’t have uninsured motorist coverage)
  • The insurance company doesn’t offer you enough money to settle your claim, or
  • Your damages exceed the driver’s policy limits.
Enjuris tip:Liability insurance will cover car accidents caused by an intoxicated driver even though driving while under the influence is an illegal activity. However, most insurance policies will NOT provide the intoxicated driver with collision, comprehensive, or any other type of coverage.

Proving that an intoxicated driver caused your accident is usually as simple as obtaining a police report indicating that the driver was intoxicated. If liability is contested, you may need to hire a personal injury attorney to help develop and prove your case.

Washington dram shop law

Dram shop laws hold establishments that sell alcohol (restaurants, bars, theaters, etc.) responsible for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.

Washington’s dram shop law can be found in the Revised Code of Washington 66.44.270 and upheld in the case Barrett v. Lucky Seven Saloon. The law states that an establishment will be liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron if the following 3 conditions are met:

  1. The establishment sold alcohol to a patron who was “apparently under the influence” or under the legal drinking age,
  2. The patron consumed the alcohol sold by the establishment, and
  3. The consumption of alcohol was the cause of the injury, death, or property damage.
Real Life Example:On October 11, 1995, Ned Maher went to the Lucky Seven Saloon at about 1:00 p.m. where he drank at least 3 pitchers of beer. He left the tavern at 4:30 p.m. and, while driving home, fell asleep, crossed the centerline, and collided with Jeffrey Barrett’s vehicle.

Jeffrey suffered permanent, devastating injuries.

When measured roughly 2 hours after the collision, Ned’s BAC was .13%.

Jeffrey filed a lawsuit against the Lucky Seven Saloon alleging that the tavern served Ned when he was “obviously intoxicated.”

The Washington Supreme Court held that Jeffrey didn’t need to prove that Ned was “obviously intoxicated” to hold the tavern liable, but only that he was “apparently” intoxicated. The court defined “apparently” as “in an apparent manner: seemingly, evidently.”

Steps to take after a drunk driving accident

Once you have taken care of your immediate health concerns, call the police so they can investigate the accident and draft a police report. Be sure to let the responding office know if you suspect the other driver is intoxicated. Your statement (and any evidence you can provide) may help the officer establish the necessary reasonable grounds to administer a field sobriety test.

In addition to calling the police, look around for witnesses and collect their contact information. You should also take photographs of the scene, including anything that might support your claim that the other driver was intoxicated (beer bottles in or near the vehicle, for example).

Ready to get the damages you deserve following a drunk driving accident? Use our free online directory to contact a Washington personal injury attorney today.


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