Compensation for Getting Hit by a Drunk Driver: How Much Can You Get?

You may be entitled to compensation from multiple sources after getting hit by a drunk driver. Learn how to gather evidence to build your claim.

More than a million drivers are arrested annually for driving under the influence, and that’s only a fraction of the 111 million episodes of drunk driving self-reported each year by Americans.¹

Some amount of alcohol was involved in over one-third of all traffic fatalities.

Victim compensation usually comes from the drunk driver’s auto insurance company. Your own auto insurance may provide coverage for you and your passengers.

Depending on the circumstances, victims and their families may be able to pursue compensation from the business or party host that served alcohol to the at-fault driver.

Calculating a Drunk Driving Settlement

When you or a loved one have been injured by a drunk driver, you are entitled to pursue compensation for measurable damages, like medical treatment, out-of-pocket expenses, replacement services, and lost income.

You’re also entitled to an amount to compensate for emotional distress, physical pain, and other non-economic damages. The more severe and long-lasting the injuries, the more “pain and suffering” you should expect.

Minor to Moderate Injury Compensation

Figuring out the settlement value for relatively minor injuries is easy to do on your own.

After you’ve fully recovered, add up your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages to arrive at your total economic damages. Then add one or two times the amount of your economic damages to account for your non-economic damages, commonly known as “pain and suffering.”

When you only suffered minor injuries and liability is clear, you may decide to handle your own insurance claim.

Case Example: Injury Settlement with DUI Driver’s Insurer 

Andy left a bar driving his sedan after having one too many beers. On the way home, he was too drunk to notice traffic stopped ahead and rear-ended Carol’s SUV.

Police arrived on the scene. Andy was arrested and his car was towed. Carol’s vehicle was drivable, so when the police finished their investigation, she drove herself to the urgent care center, where she was treated for a mild whiplash neck injury.

The police report showed that Andy was cited for DUI, failing to yield keep a proper lookout, and failing to maintain a proper distance.

Carol missed three days of work at $480, and incurred $500 in medical bills, so her economic damages were $480 + $500 = $980.

She added two times that amount to account for her pain and suffering: $980 x 2 = $1,960.

Combining her economic and non-economic damages ($980 + $1,960) Carol’s claim value estimate came to $2,940.

Carols submitted a compensation demand for $3,000 to Andy’s insurance company.

The insurance adjuster recognized that Carol’s demand was reasonable, and that the insured driver was fully liable, so there wasn’t too much haggling.

Carol settled her injury claim for $2,800.

Severe Injury Compensation

Severe or fatal injuries from a drunk driving crash must be handled by an experienced car accident attorney. These are high-dollar cases that should include compensation for the victim’s future medical costs, future lost income, and future personal aid requirements.

Settlement values for hospitalization, surgery, and rehab often reach $150,000 or more. The value of catastrophic injuries, such as tetraplegia or traumatic brain injuries, can reach millions of dollars. These victims will require lifelong care.

High-dollar cases often end up in court when the insurance company won’t agree to a compromised settlement. In jury trials, validating costs for serious injury claims often requires expert opinions.

In a serious injury case, your attorney may hire experts such as:

  • Economists to determine loss of future earning capacity
  • Vocational specialists to explain how the injuries affect the victim’s ability to work or care for themselves
  • Medical specialists to estimate future treatment costs
  • Accident reconstructionists to demonstrate how the crash occurred

In addition to awarding compensatory damages to the injured victim, juries often have the right to award punitive damages, meaning additional funds to be paid as a penalty for egregiously negligent actions.

Case Example: Jury Awards $3.5 Million for Head-On Drunk Driving Crash 

Jennifer Rios was driving with her 8-year-old son in the car one summer evening when she was hit head-on by a car driven by 17-year-old Austin Hicks. Driving while intoxicated, Hicks had crossed the center line into oncoming traffic.

Hicks was arrested for DUI and later convicted. His blood alcohol was over the legal limit and he had an empty vodka bottle in the car.

Rios suffered extensive fractures and internal injuries in the crash. She was unable to walk for months and endured 16 surgeries. Her son was thrown from the back seat of her car but survived the crash and recovered from his injuries.

The jury awarded Rios $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

In this accident case, the jury’s punitive award exceeded the maximum $350,000 allowed under state law.

How to Get Compensation After a Drunk Driving Crash

In severe injury or wrongful death cases, car accident compensation often comes down to available funds.

The drunk driver may be unemployed and uninsured. If the driver is insured, but multiple people were injured in the crash, the available insurance funds may not be enough to go around. A personal injury attorney can help locate all sources of compensation so your interests are protected.

Coverage from Your Own Auto Policy

In no-fault insurance states, you must first look to your Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage to pay medical expenses and lost wages. You can pursue the other driver’s insurance when you’ve met the PIP severe injury threshold.

Similarly, if you’ve purchased optional MedPay coverage, it can help with immediate medical costs.

PIP and MedPay typically provide $5,000 to $20,000 in coverage for you and your passengers.

If the drunk driver was uninsured or underinsured, your attorney can help you make the appropriate claims under your own policy. Don’t expect your insurance company to just write you a check. You’ll have to justify the amount of your claim.

Don’t Accept Allegations of Shared Fault

Most states follow a comparative negligence rule, meaning you can still pursue compensation from the other driver’s insurance company, even if you are partially to blame for the accident. Your total compensation will be adjusted to account for your share of liability.

Insurance adjusters will use any tactic to save the company money, including blaming accident victims for causing the crash. Don’t let the adjuster assign fault to you or your family members. Immediately contact a personal injury lawyer.

Case Example: Comparative Negligence and Drunk Driving

Two college students died when Jimmy Nelson lost control of his car on a sharp curve, slamming into a tree.

Friends from grade school, Jimmy Nelson and Bobby Wilson, had spent the evening bowling, eating pizza, and drinking beer before heading back to Jimmy’s home.

The Nelson car was insured by Standard insurance company.  A few months after the accident, a Standard insurance adjuster paid a visit to Bobby Wilson’s mother. After offering his condolences, the adjuster said he was there to offer an insurance settlement for Bobby.

The adjuster explained that Standard was willing to offer $1,500 to help offset funeral expenses, although they had no obligation to pay the claim since Bobby had knowingly assumed the risk of riding with a drunk driver.

The grieving mother was shocked and angered to hear the adjuster say that her boy had brought his death upon himself. She asked him to leave and called her attorney.

It didn’t take long for the Wilsons’ attorney to discover that Jimmy’s alcohol level was over the legal limit, but witnesses from the bowling alley testified that he did not appear to be intoxicated. Given that Jimmy didn’t appear drunk and Bobby had also been drinking, Bobby could not have made a “well-informed decision to assume risk.”

Faced with the facts, rather than fight a wrongful death lawsuit Standard settled with Jimmy’s mother for the policy limits of $100,000.

State Liquor Laws Can Help Your Claim

Recovery from severe car accident injuries can be difficult and expensive. Your compensation may not be limited to the at-fault driver’s insurance coverage. Most states have Dram Shop laws that make bar and restaurant owners responsible for serving alcohol to patrons who drive drunk.

Some states extend that liability to individuals who provided alcohol in their homes. Hit by a drunk driver who just left a Super Bowl party? You may be able to go after the party host. The same goes for adults who allow underage drinking in their homes.

Individuals who serve alcohol often have homeowner’s insurance or umbrella policies with liability coverage. Commercial establishments like bars and nightclubs often carry much more liability coverage than you can get from a driver’s auto insurance.

Many states, like Texas, make the bar liable for serving a person who is already intoxicated. A recent Texas case made headlines with an extreme verdict against a bar. The bar went out of business before the verdict was rendered, so the family is not likely to see much of the award. However, the message to establishments that serve liquor is loud and clear.

Case Sample: Texas Jury Awards $300 Billion for Fatal Drunk Driving Crash

Tamra Kindred was driving with her 16-year-old granddaughter Aujuni Anderson when their car was T-boned by a drunk driver who ran a red light. All three died in the car crash.

The at-fault driver, Joshua Delbosque, had been served 11 alcoholic drinks before leaving the Beer Belly Sports Bar. It was determined Delbosque had a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit when he slammed into Kindred’s car.

The Kindred and Anderson family sued the Beer Belly Bar, contending the bar continued to serve an obviously intoxicated patron.

Sending a clear message that bars must not violate alcoholic beverage regulations intended to protect patrons and the general public, the jury found in favor of the grieving family, awarding more than $300 billion.

Ways to Prove Impaired Driving

If you’ve just been in a motor vehicle accident with a potentially intoxicated driver, call 911 to report the crash and ask for help. Tell the dispatcher your location, if anyone is hurt, and that you think the other driver is drunk or high.

What To do At the Scene

  • Open Containers: Watch to see if anyone from the other car tries to dispose of beer cans, liquor bottles, or drug paraphernalia. If you saw anyone toss such items, point it out to the police officers.
  • Jumping Drivers: Make sure you know which person was driving. A tactic used by drunk drivers is to switch places with one of the passengers who hasn’t been drinking as much. Alert the officers if you saw that happen.
  • Witness Statements: Look for witnesses who saw the other driver driving poorly before the crash, like swerving or running their car off the road. Likewise, try to get witness statements from anyone at the scene who saw the other driver acting drunk, or heard the other driver admit to causing the collision.
  • Photos and Video: Gather as much photographic evidence as you safely can at the accident scene. You can’t take too many pictures of the cars, roadway, your injuries, and the police and paramedics at work. Videos with sound can capture behavior by occupants of the other car and provide compelling evidence of intoxication.

The Police Accident Report 

Request a copy of the police report for your accident. Police reports have a separate section for “contributory factors” where the investigating officer will enter any of the at-fault driver’s actions that they determine caused the accident, such as running a red light, speeding, following too closely, or failing to yield.

The police report will list any tickets issued to the driver, and the reason a driver is arrested. The report will usually include the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) if the driver was tested on the scene or at the hospital.

A driver’s arrest for drunk driving is strong evidence of negligence, but a conviction is even stronger. Be sure to follow up on the driver’s arrest to confirm a conviction. You can contact the District Attorney’s office and speak with the prosecutor assigned to the case.

Evidence From the At-Fault Driver

An experienced accident attorney will be able to secure evidence that would be hard for you to get on your own.

Evidence an attorney can obtain through the discovery process includes:

  • Alcohol or toxicology tests given to the driver at the hospital
  • The intoxicated driver’s driving record
  • Where the other driver had been drinking/obtained alcohol before the crash
  • Statements from witnesses who observed the at-fault driver prior to leaving the bar or party
  • Other applicable insurance policies, like a parent’s policy or a company car police

Drunk Driving Accident Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>