Facing an Injury Claim or Lawsuit After a DUI-Related Car Accident

If you were driving under the influence and caused a car accident, here's what you need to know about your liability for injuries and vehicle damage.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Being sued for causing a car wreck is bad enough. Things go from bad to worse, though, when you cause an accident while driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI). In addition to criminal charges, your auto insurer (if you were insured) is likely to drop your coverage or raise your premiums. On top of that, you can count on one or more insurance claims or lawsuits being filed against you for any injuries or other damages you caused.

Here's a brief overview of what to expect when the insurance claims and lawsuits start landing on your doorstep.

A Word of Caution

This article assumes that you were involved in a DUI or DWI car wreck. Much of what we discuss here will take place against the backdrop of pending or potential criminal charges, especially within the first several months after the accident. You should be represented by experienced legal counsel on those charges, and your counsel should advise you on the matters we cover here, too.

Why is this important? Remember the warning: Anything you say can be used against you in your criminal case. That's true for things you say in connection with a car accident insurance claim or a civil lawsuit, too. Here's how to find and work with a criminal defense lawyer on your DUI or DWI case.

Should I Report the Accident to My Auto Insurer?

The short answer is: Yes, you need to report the accident to your auto insurance company. But if you have criminal charges pending, don't do it yourself. Ask your lawyer to contact your auto insurer and make the report. If you're not facing criminal charges (and you're confident that you won't be), you can call your insurance agent or report the collision using your insurance company's accident reporting webpage or mobile app.

Don't wait until someone makes a claim against you to notify your insurer. Your insurance policy almost certainly requires that you report any accident promptly. If you're worried about the company finding out that you were DUI or DWI, don't. They'll find out about it eventually.

If there's a lengthy delay between the date of the accident and the date a claim gets filed, and if you haven't already reported the accident, the insurance company might argue that your failure to provide timely notice was a "breach," or violation, of the insurance policy. When you breach the policy, the insurance company can use your breach as a reason to deny coverage. That's a fight you don't need.

How Do I Know If Someone Brings an Insurance Claim Against Me?

If someone you hurt in the accident decides to bring an insurance claim against you, your first clue might come in the form of a claim notice letter. Typically, this letter will be short and to the point, telling you that a claim for personal injuries or property damage is being brought against you. Chances are there won't be much detail about injuries, nor will there be a demand for a specific settlement amount.

The letter might tell you to pass it along to your auto insurer, and that's a good idea. You can deliver it to your agent or send an electronic copy via email or the insurance company's claims webpage. Again, don't delay. If criminal charges are pending, simply send it along without comment or forward it through your lawyer.

What should you do if you don't have auto insurance? Your best bet will be to get advice from an experienced car accident defense lawyer. The person who's bringing the claim against you will be represented by counsel. Without legal help, you'll be fighting a losing battle.

If the letter comes from a lawyer, it might invite you to contact the lawyer's office to discuss the claim or a settlement. Don't take them up on that invitation. Nothing you might say will help you, and the claim isn't going to settle at that point. In any event, your insurance policy probably doesn't let you settle a claim without the insurer's agreement.

How Do I Know If I'm Being Sued?

A civil lawsuit starts when the person you injured or whose property you damaged (the "plaintiff") files a document—usually called a "complaint"—in court. Typically within 30 to 60 days after the complaint is filed, you (the "defendant") will be "served with process." A sheriff's deputy or other process server will hand-deliver a copy of the complaint and some other documents to you, usually at your home. This is likely to be your first indication that you've been sued.

As soon as you're served, you should get the complaint to your insurance company. If you don't have auto insurance, then take it to your lawyer's office. Do this right away. Here's why.

Once you've been served, you've got a limited amount of time (usually around 30 days, but it varies based on state law) to respond to the lawsuit. You do this by filing either an answer to the complaint, or a motion to dismiss the complaint. If you don't respond to the complaint in time, the plaintiff can ask the court to enter a default judgment against you, ordering you to pay the plaintiff money damages.

Will My Insurance Company Defend Me in Court?

Probably so. When you buy auto insurance, your liability coverage does a couple of important things. First, it pays for damages you cause to others in a covered accident, up to the limits of your policy. Second, it covers the costs to defend you in court—including attorney's fees—if you get sued. The insurance company normally hires and pays a local attorney who has experience defending car accident cases.

The "Reservation of Rights" Letter

As a rule, insurance covers losses caused by negligence—carelessness—but not losses caused by intentional wrongdoing. This distinction probably won't cause your insurer to deny coverage for your DUI or DWI accident. While you intended to drink and you intended to drive, you didn't intend to get into a wreck. In most states, insurance claims against you should be covered.

Your insurance company might send you something called a "reservation of rights" letter. In essence, the letter says "We're going to investigate this claim and we might provide you with a defense, but we reserve the right to deny coverage later if we determine that the accident wasn't covered."

It's a way for the insurance company to cover its tracks if it later comes up with a reason not to cover you. If you get a reservation of rights letter (or if the carrier simply denies coverage for the claim) you should consult with an experienced car accident defense lawyer immediately.

Watch Out for an Excess Judgment

When you drive drunk and cause a plaintiff serious or catastrophic injuries, their lawsuit is likely to ask for extraordinarily high damages. This opens you up to the possibility of an excess judgment—a damages verdict that exceeds your auto insurance policy limits. Needless to say, that sort of verdict could prove financially disastrous. Here's an example.

Suppose that while driving drunk, you slammed into the driver's side of another car after running a red light. The other driver suffered multiple fractures, internal injuries, and a closed head injury. Your insurance company estimates that the value of the plaintiff's claim is between $750,000 and $1,000,000. Your auto liability policy has a bodily injury limit of $100,000. How is this claim likely to play out?

Your insurer will see no point in fighting the case on your behalf, and will quickly offer to pay your policy limits to settle the case. The plaintiff's lawyer will run an asset check to see if you have other property that might be seized to satisfy a larger judgment. If not, the plaintiff likely will take the $100,000 policy proceeds and settle. But if you do, the plaintiff will continue with the case.

When the plaintiff wins at trial (which they will), and the verdict exceeds your policy limit (which it will), your insurer will pay the $100,000 policy limit to the plaintiff and be done with you. The plaintiff's lawyer will begin collection activity to seize your assets, liquidate them, and apply the proceeds to the amount of the judgment. To prevent this from happening, your only viable option is likely to be bankruptcy.

Beware of Punitive Damages

In many car accident claims, especially those involving DUI or DWI, the plaintiff will ask for both compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are for things like medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. Punitive damages, by contrast, are intended to punish a wrongdoer and to deter others from behaving the same way.

Your auto insurance covers you for compensatory damages up to your policy limits. But most policies exclude punitive damages. Should punitive damages be awarded in a trial, your insurer won't pay for them. If the lawsuit asks for punitive damages, get advice from your lawyer.

How Long Will a Claim or Lawsuit Take?

There aren't any hard and fast rules. When the damages are within your policy limits and your liability is clear, the insurance company will probably want to settle an insurance claim as quickly as possible. There's no sense fighting over a claim that's easy for a plaintiff to sell to a jury—as DUI and DWI claims tend to be when there's no real room to argue about liability or damages.

Claims can get bogged down, though, if liability isn't clear. The fact that you were DUI or DWI doesn't necessarily mean you were at fault for the accident. For instance, if the other driver failed to yield the right of way to you, your intoxication might not have been the cause of the wreck. When there are good reasons to fight the claim on legal liability, or if the claim seeks excessive damages, it might take longer to resolve.

(Learn more about how to prove fault for a car accident.)

Things are also a bit unpredictable when lawsuits are involved. Some are wrapped up within a few months. Others can take several years, especially if the case goes to an appeal after the trial. Lawsuits tend to follow a predictable pattern, but the timeline varies from one case to the next.

Get Help From a Lawyer

In a situation involving a DUI or DWI, there are landmines at every turn. If you're insured, your insurance company likely will cover your claim, but that's just one of the issues you're facing. You also need to be concerned about criminal charges, and with finding new auto insurance in the event your insurer cancels your coverage. You may face other problems too, problems that we simply don't have the space to address here.

Stated more directly, you've got to keep several plates spinning. This isn't a situation where you want to go it alone. Contact an experienced attorney for help and guidance.

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