I Was Hit by a Drunk Driver—Who Can Be Held Liable?

Drunk driving is not just a crime—it’s a plague. Drunk driving costs the U.S. $1.9 billion annually$800 per adult per year. But that’s not the highest cost, not by far. Every two minutes, someone is injured in a drunk-driving accident—culminating in 28 deaths every day.

It is for good reason that driving while intoxicated is a crime. In fact, a whole chapter of the Nevada Revised Statutes is dedicated to defining and penalizing “driving under the influence of alcohol or a prohibited substance.” See NRS 484C.

Not unlike many other criminal statutes, a violation thereof can be the basis of not only criminal charges, but civil liability against the person harmed by your actions. It may also be the basis of civil liability against others who were not driving the vehicle.

Civil Liability of Drunk Drivers

It should be fairly obvious that the drunk drivers themselves are liable for injuries and losses resulting from their driving while intoxicated. The legal theories that would support this liability include at a minimum negligence (breach of a legal duty), gross negligence (reckless disregard for the safety of others), and negligence per se (violation of a statute designed to protect others from the type of harm caused).

At Parry & Pfau, we don’t believe there is any acceptable excuse for driving while intoxicated. For that reason, we don’t represent drunk drivers either in car accident cases or  in an effort to get them out of their DUIs. We sue them.

Civil Liability of Bars and Taverns Who Sold Alcohol to Drunk Drivers

Some states have established what are called dram shop laws, which set forth the circumstances through which the owner of a bar or tavern can be responsible for injuries and damages sustained as a result of a drunk driver who became intoxicated at their establishment and should have been prevented from driving.

To get an idea of where the various states stand in respect to dram shop liability laws, review this 50-state survey put together by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nevada not only does not impose liability upon the seller of alcohol for the actions of the intoxicated person, but it has a specific statute removing liability:

A person who serves, sells or otherwise furnishes an alcoholic beverage to another person who is 21 years of age or older is not liable in a civil action for any damages caused by the person to whom the alcoholic beverage was served, sold or furnished as a result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage.

NRS 43.1305.

Liability may be imposed, however—including attorney’s fees, costs, and punitive damages—if the owner or employee knowingly serves, sells, or furnishes alcohol to someone known to be under 21 or allows an underage person to consume alcohol on the premises.

Civil Liability of Persons Who Allow Someone Who Is Intoxicated to Drive

Negligence law is very broad. It allows recovery against anyone for whom the victim can prove breached a legal duty (including the broadest of duties everyone owes to everyone else to act reasonably), which breach caused damages.

In some circumstances, you may be able to impose liability against third-parties (people other than the drunk driver) who knew the person was intoxicated but allowed them to drive.

For example, in at least one case, Green v. City of Livermore, 117 Cal. App. 3d 82 (1981), police officers were held liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated driver after they arrested one drunk driver, but left the two intoxicated passengers to drive the vehicle. However, in other cases since, courts have declined to extend liability to police.

A criminal case from 2014 in Connecticut creates some interesting civil implications in this area. Two 17-year old boys were arrested and charged with misdemeanor crimes because they knew their friend was drunk, but allowed her to drive anyway. And if there is a criminal duty, negligence jurisprudence also imposes a civil duty, which means these youth could potentially have been held civilly liable for any losses caused by their failure to prevent their friend from driving while intoxicated.

In most scenarios, it would be very difficult to impose liability on someone in these circumstances because there is no duty to rescue others from peril unless the third party put them in peril or has a special relationship with the victim (e.g., parent/child, teacher/student, hotel/guest).

These are complicated legal questions that require experience and knowledge of the law. If you have been injured by a drunk driver, consult with experienced attorneys who can analyze your case and identify the potentially liable parties. Give Parry & Pfau a call today.


Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or zach@p2lawyers.com.