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July, 2001 - Drunk Driving And Liquor Liability

Alcohol continues to be a major factor in traffic accidents. There is an alcohol-related traffic fatality every 33 minutes. If drunk driving is not significantly reduced, 3 out of every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash during their lifetimes.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes or have caselaw created by court decisions that hold liquor servers liable for the damage a drunk driver causes. These liquor liability laws help curb drunk driving by making sellers and servers of alcohol more careful.

According to preliminary estimates from t he U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 16,068 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2000, a number that is 1.8 percent higher than the 15,786 people killed in these crashes in 1999. Alcohol was involved in 38 percent of all crash fatalities in 1999 and 2000.

The campaign to deter drunk driving received a boost in October 2000 when then-President Clinton signed a bill reauthorizing highway funding that includes a provision that imposed sanctions on states that do not lower the blood alcohol level defining drunk driving to 0.08 from 0.10. If they do not comply, the states will forfeit federal highway construction funds beginning in fiscal year 2004.

Anti-drunk driving campaigns especially target under-age drivers, alcoholics, and 21 to 34 year olds, who are responsible for more alcohol-related fatal crashes than any other age group. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they are the most resistant to changing impaired driving behavior.

Alcohol-related crashes are those where the people involved, either a driver or a non-occupant, such as a pedestrian, had some level of alcohol in their blood, both below and at the level which defines intoxication.

Federal Legislation: In October 2000, then-President Clinton signed the Fiscal Year 2001 Transportation and Related Agencies Ap propriations Act, a reauthorization for transportation programs, that included a noteworthy provision fighting drunk driving. The b ill mandates that states that do not lower the blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08 by October 2003 will forfeit federal highway fund s beginning with fiscal year 2004. The DOT expects the lower BAC to save 500 lives a year when all states have adopted it. Earlier in 2000, the DOT said that Illinois' 0.08 BAC law, effective July 1997, was responsible for a 13.7 percent decline in the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes, including drivers at both high and low BAC levels.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21), had sought to encourage states to lower the BAC to 0.08 by including $ 700 million in grants to states that adopted the lower BAC. Although twenty states and the District of Columbia had enacted the 0.08 BAC, Advocates for Highway Safety noted that only two of those states (Texas and Kentucky) enacted the lower level in the past two years, illustrating the fact that incentives are not effective, and in order to save more lives, the stronger means of introducing sanctions was necessary.

Research shows that drivers believe that their chances of being stopped and arrested for drunk driving are increased when they see regular sobriety checkpoints, and they become more cautious as well as less likely to drink and drive. Death caused by drunk driving is a felony in 37 states. High courts in at least six states have upheld murder convictions in cases where it was proven that drunk drivers showed willful disregard for human life. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have strengthened the legal definition of drunk driving by changing the standard from 0.10 BAC to 0.08.

Surveys show that Americans have become more critical of drunk driving in a relatively short span of time. According to a 1997 Insurance Research Council (IRC) poll, fewer drivers now admit to driving under the influence of alcohol. In face-to-face interviews, 21 percent of licensed drivers admitted that they had driven in the past year after drinking.

Legislation to combat underage drinking and driving was enacted on the federal level with the 1995 National Highway Bill which urged states to impose a 0.02 BAC threshold for drunk driving for under-21 drivers (meaning that under-21 drivers can be convicted of drunk driving if their BAC is 0.02 or above).

Major insurers sponsor seasonal anti-drunk driving campaigns and distribute social host guides and media a lerts. Campaigns include MADD's July 4th anti-drunk driving campaign and New Year's Eve guidelines.

A number of factors have combined to create a more favorable market for establishments seeking liquor liability insurance, including the responsibility assumed by owners and operators of eating and drinking establishments, stricter state liquor statutes, and t he Risk Retention Act of 1986 which makes it easier to form risk retention groups that can provide insurance coverage outside the traditional market. However, according to industry observers, the number of wrongful death cases decided against alcohol providers su rged in the early 1990s. The average judgment against alcohol providers had risen by 1990 to $ 500,000.

A social host's responsibility for the actions of drunk guests was addressed in a 1984 New Jersey State Supreme Court ruling that a private host serving liquor could be held liable for a drunk guest's subsequent motor vehicle accident. That ruling was tempered by a 1988 law limiting social host liability and may be modified by a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that specifically applies to commercial servers.

In at least 21 states, statutory language may be read to include noncommercial servers, sometimes on a limited basis according to the USDOT (See chart). In 10 other states, liability has been established by common law. However, courts in some states have ruled specifically that social hosts are not liable and that this is a matter of public policy which should be decided by the legislature. In at least three states Missouri, Washington and Colorado courts have decided that social hosts cannot be treated under the law the same way as people who sell drinks for a living.

In response to the rise of citizen activist groups, notably Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), and to advertising campaigns and publicity efforts by organizations such as the Insurance information Institute, awareness of the problems associated with drunk drivers increased dramatically by the early 1980s. Heavy and often emotional lobbying by citizens groups brought about changes in laws and formation of drunk driving task forces in several states. Then, as the grass-root campaign grew, Congress and the President began to take action which resulted in passage of federal legislation and stricter laws in many states. In addition, there was a noticeable change in attitudes toward drinking and driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that among 17 states implementing the law, whether as part of a larger program of drunk driving deterrents or the only drunk driving law in effect, there was a median six percent decrease in crashes likely to be alcohol-related. Additional funds were release d to states which instituted other laws, such as prohibiting open containers of alcoholic beverages in the passenger compartments of motor vehicles, making BAC tests mandatory for drivers involved in serious or fatal accidents, preventing under-age drivers from ob taining alcohol, and providing for vehicle registration cancellation for drivers who had their licenses suspended or revoked due to alcohol-related offenses

In all automobile accident cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of an automobile accident involving a drunk driver, call now at or CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT A SIMPLE CASE FORM. The initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds. Don't delay! You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.

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