The Crossroads Between Criminal and Civil Law

Most of us, even lawyers and judges, worry from time to time about getting pulled over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated, commonly known as a DWI.  By now, thanks to the advertising and public service announcements, we know the costs associated with the criminal charges can be very high; however, if you are actually intoxicated while driving and injure someone there can be much more than just the criminal issues that result from your behavior.

A person charged with DWI will face potential jail time, fines, surcharges, attorney’s fees for your criminal defense attorney, potential loss of your driver’s license, and potential job loss. The Defendant will also find himself having to take time off for hearings and meetings with his attorney.  That can be just the start; if the Defendant hurts someone he is likely to face a civil lawsuit as well for the victim’s personal injuries, which will require attention as well.

A personal injury lawsuit may result even if you are not convicted of the DWI. In the personal injury suit the burden of proof is much lower than that required in a criminal case. Many are familiar with the OJ Simpson case. He faced similar issues—he was able to win the criminal case because the State of California could not prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but he lost the civil case brought by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.  The jury ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages. The primary reason he could win one and lose the other is that in the civil case the burden of proof, called the “preponderance of the evidence,” requires that the evidence prove the matter is more likely true than not true.

A civil lawsuit involving a DWI commonly results in a large verdict in favor of the plaintiff. While typically thought of as conservative, juries frequently punish people who engaged in reckless conduct such as driving while intoxicated, particularly when that conduct results of the injury of another.  A person facing a DWI charge faces the very real danger of a serious criminal punishment and a serious civil judgment.

In addition to the typical damage available in a personal injury lawsuit, when the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the crash the jury is likely to find the defendant “grossly negligent” an award punitive damages for the reckless conduct.  The punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant driver and are above and beyond any criminal fines assess. They go to pay a debt owed to the actual victim as opposed to the state and are intended to deter the conduct.

Another thing to be aware of is that many insurance companies are taking the position that their policy does not cover punitive damages. That means that if the jury awards punitive damages, although the Defendant has been paying for car insurance to cover damages awarded against him in a car crash, the insurance company will not pay the punitive damages portion of the verdict. The driver would be responsible for the payment of those damages out of pocket and his insurance company would not cover them.

The practical implications of this coverage issue is that many victims of DWI never recover for the punitive damages portion because many people do not have enough money to pay. Texas could require insurance companies to cover those damages and then simply raise the rates, as they have done for decades, allowing a recovery for the victim and a punishment in terms of higher insurance rates for the drunk driver, but so far has chosen not to take that action.

There could also be another civil case involving the liquor store or bar that over-served the driver. This is referred to as a “Dramshop case.” The Dramshop Act encompasses a group of laws that were created to regulate the sale of alcohol. They determine what a provider of alcohol (bar, restraint, store, etc.) can and cannot do when it comes to selling alcohol.  The laws were passed with the intention to protect the public with the understanding that alcohol impairs decision making. The State of Texas set these responsibilities and obligations as a prerequisite to the privilege of obtaining a license to sell alcohol in this state. Under those laws, bars have an obligation not to over serve somebody who is obviously intoxicated. The bar is supposed to train their employees to identify someone who is intoxicated. This is part of what is commonly referred to as TABC certification.

When the alcohol-selling establishment fails to follow obligations under the Dramshop laws they may be sued for endangering the public, which may include the intoxicated person. Typically the violations that allow a civil lawsuit, may also result in consequences to the establishment’s TABC license.  The bar has a an obligation, one that it agreed to accept when it applied for and received a license from the Texas Alcoholic and Beverage Commission, to comply with the regulations set forth by TABC. Some of the regulations concern things like the prohibition on sale of alcohol to minors and the over serving of obviously intoxicated individuals.  If a violation results in injury to the drunk or to someone else the bar may be liable in a civil suit for personal injury. However, even in a case to determine whether the bar violated its duties, the law of Texas typically allow the jury to award fault to the drunk driver as well. This makes case brought by the drunk driver particularly difficult, as a finding of more than 50% of fault on the driver will result in zero recovery for the driver.

If you have questions about these matters or need assistance with a related legal matter, please contact an experienced attorney to assist you. If you or a loved one have been the victim of a drunk driver or a TABC-violating establishment, contact us today for a free consultation. 866-492-2509.