Legal Aspects Of Alcohol-Related New York Car Crashes

Because it impedes both motor skills and cognitive skills, alcohol impairment is a factor in about a third of the fatal car crashes in New York. Compensation in alcohol-related cases is often substantial, since tortfeasors (negligent drivers) make a conscious choice to drink and drive and thereby place the property and safety of other people at risk. For this same reason, in some extreme cases involving a high BAC or other aggravating factors, victims may be entitled to additional punitive damages which punish the tortfeasor and help to prevent future wrongful conduct.


First Party Liability

In a DUI case, the prosecutor must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. But in civil court, a victim must only establish negligence by a preponderance of the evidence, or “more likely than not.”

So, evidence that is too weak to support a DUI conviction is often more than enough to support impairment. For example, if a tortfeasor had just left an alcohol-serving establishment moments before the crash, that fact alone would hardly be enough to establish intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt.

But impairment starts with the first drink, and it is easy for a jury to conclude that, more likely than not, the tortfeasor consumed alcohol at that establishment and was therefore impaired at the time of the crash.

Stronger circumstantial evidence of impairment, such as bloodshot eyes, often comes into play when discussing third party liability, as outlined below.

If the tortfeasor was sufficiently impaired to merit a DUI charge, the negligence per se (negligence “as such”) shortcut probably applies. Instead of the five prongs in a negligence case, in negligence per se matters, victims need only establish that:

  • The tortfeasor broke a safety law, and
  • That violation substantially caused the car crash or other damages.

The jury is the final arbiter of all factual questions, so the jury would also determine whether or not the tortfeasor broke the DUI law.


Third Party Liability

New York has one of the broadest dram shop laws in the country. It applies if a commercial vendor, or a noncommercial party host, illegally provided alcohol to another person, and that person subsequently caused a car crash.

  • Under 21: Providers are usually liable for damages as a matter of law if the patron or guest was under 21, because it is typically no defense to say that the person “looked older.”
  • Obviously Intoxicated: If the guest or patron was over 21, the person must have been obviously intoxicated at the time for liability to attach. Evidence of intoxication includes unsteady balance, slurred speech, and bloodshot eyes.

Victim who sustain serious injuries, as defined in the New York Insurance Code, are entitled to compensation for their medical bills, lost wages, and other economic damages, in addition to pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment in life, and other noneconomic damages. To obtain additional punitive damages, the victim must establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that the tortfeasor intentionally disregarded a known risk.