I had the great pleasure of teaching a class to over 110 criminal defense lawyers on February 28, 2020. They were all gathered to learn how to defend their clients who have been charged with DWI or DUI. I was there to tell them how it works when I sue their clients for injuring my clients in drunk driving accidents.
So what does happen when someone gets hurt or killed by a drunk driver in North Carolina?
First, let me make this clear: Nichols Law Firm only represents people injured or killed by drunk drivers. We never defend drunk drivers. When I teach a class to lawyers who defend drunk drivers, I'm teaching them the best ways to help my injured clients, which sometimes can be mutually beneficial to their client.
When a North Carolina drunk driver wrecks your car and injures you or your loved ones, we all hope that they are arrested at the scene. The arresting officer will do field sobriety tests, and if the driver does poorly on the tests, there will be probable cause to request a breath test for blood alcohol concentration. The drunk driver can refuse that test but the arresting officer can force a blood draw to get the results. Any blood alcohol concentration over .08% will result in an arrest for driving while intoxicated. Some refer to that simply as DWI or DUI.
Is a personal injury claim against a drunk driver any different from a regular personal injury claim?
A personal injury case against a drunk driver is pretty similar to one against a non-drunk driver. An adjuster from the drunk driver's insurance company will want to take a recorded statement from you over the phone. They may ask you about all the ways you think the driver was intoxicated. It's really important to get that right and make sure that you tell them all the signs of intoxication you saw: glassy eyes, smell of alcohol, unsteady on feet, slurring words, and of course, any statements the other driver made about drinking.
So what are punitive damages in drunk driving cases?
In North Carolina, under General Statute Chapter 1D, Punitive Damages, anyone hurt or killed by a drunk driver, who proves the driver was drunk and driving negligently, may be entitled to receive punitive damages on top of the compensatory damages present in every injury case. Compensatory damages are things like medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, permanent scars, lost work, ambulance and doctor bills, and permanent disability. Punitives damages are damages on top of the compensatory damages and are meant solely to punish the drunk driver and deter other people from drunk driving.
§ 1D-1. Purpose of punitive damages.
Punitive damages may be awarded, in an appropriate case and subject to the provisions of this Chapter, to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts. (1995, c. 514, s. 1.)
In general, punitive damages are limited to 3 times the amount of the compensatory damages, or $250,000, whichever is greater. But the Legislature made an exception to the cap on punitive damages in North Carolina: drunk drivers.
§ 1D-26. Driving while impaired; exemption from cap.
G.S. 1D-25(b) shall not apply to a claim for punitive damages for injury or harm arising from a defendant's operation of a motor vehicle if the actions of the defendant in operating the motor vehicle would give rise to an offense of driving while impaired under G.S. 20-138.1, 20-138.2, or 20-138.5. (1995, c. 514, s. 1.)
Do I need a lawyer to represent me when I have been hit by a drunk driver?
If you or a loved one gets hit by a drunk driver in Raleigh, Durham, or Chapel Hill, it is a good idea to at least have a free consultation with a lawyer. There are many reasons for this. First, you may be required to come to court as a witness in the drunk driving prosecution. Or you may be called on to give a victim impact statement at the drunk driver's sentencing hearing. While the local District Attorney offices do a great job with victims, they can't "represent you" or give you legal advice. Having your own lawyer, right from the start, means that I can come to the criminal court trial with you and help you through out. It also means that I will monitor the criminal case, and make sure the drunk driver receives appropriate punishment.
How does my lawyer help when I'm called as a witness or victim of a drunk driver?
Along the same lines, the criminal defense attorney can sometimes coordinate with me, as your attorney, to be very helpful to the injured party by facilitating money settlements with the injured party as part of criminal restitution or civil settlement. Sometimes the drunk driver's lawyer will also coordinate with me to make sure that the insurance company for the drunk driver is paying a fair amount of money, considering the compensatory and punitive damages.
What experience does Nichols Law Firm and Chris Nichols, Attorney have making claims against drunk drivers?
I've been practicing law for 25 years and my first few years I actually defended drunk drivers when I worked for a senior attorney. This gave me great practical insight into how the criminal prosecution works. As a civil lawyer, I also have to prove the defendant was intoxicated, and having worked on both sides of this, I have a lot of knowledge. At any given time, my office usually has 4 or 5 cases against drunk drivers. Because of this, we have developed systems to catch drunk drivers in any lies or exaggerations they make about their alcohol use and rehabilitation. It's not unusual for a criminal defendant to testify they have "put down the bottle", only to have our private investigator see them buy booze at the ABC store and drive away on a limited permit that does not allow for that. When we catch defendants in lies like this, the cases against them often settle for more money and faster. Rarely do we have to try one of the civil cases against drunk drivers.
If you or a loved one has been hurt or killed by a drunk driver, you can call me, Chris Nichols, directly, for a free consultation: 919.915.0212
Be safe out there!
Nichols Law Firm