Facing an Injury Lawsuit After a DUI-Related Car Accident

If you were DUI in connection with a car accident, here's what you need to know regarding your civil liability for injuries and vehicle damage.

Being involved in a car accident can be incredibly stressful, even after the proverbial dust settles and injuries are properly treated. While most car accident injury claims settle, lawsuits sometimes follow a car crash. Hearing the words, "You’ve been served" can unnerve even the most unflappable among us. This is particularly true if you were drinking and driving at the time of the accident. If you were convicted of -- or pled guilty to -- a charge of DUI/DWI (Driving Under the Influence or Driving While Intoxicated), any person who was injured in the crash will likely file a car accident lawsuit against you.

A lawsuit can be a complicated and confusing process. Sometimes a lawsuit is filed just days or weeks following the car accident, and it comes as little surprise when you are served with suit papers. But in some states the lawsuit can be filed as long as five years after the accident. You might have assumed by that time that the injured person decided not to bring a claim, or that if the person did bring a claim then maybe your car insurance company had already resolved the matter.

If you are sued in civil court for causing a drunk driving accident, you are probably wondering what to expect. Read on for the answers.

How Do I Know If I’m Being Sued?

A lawsuit begins when the injured person files a petition or complaint in court. The person bringing the lawsuit is known as the “Plaintiff.” Once the lawsuit is filed, the person being sued (the “Defendant”) must be formally notified of the case.

The laws of most states require that the defendant be personally "served" with notice of the lawsuit and a copy of the petition or complaint. This means that a sheriff’s deputy or process server will hand-deliver these court documents. Typically the defendant is served within thirty days of the date the lawsuit is filed. However, some states allow the service to occur up to three or six months following the filing date, or an extension may be granted if there are valid problems locating and/or serving the defendant.

Learn more about how a car accident lawsuit starts.

Act Quickly!

If you are served with a summons, it is very important that you take immediate action. You must file the required response document (usually called an “Answer”) by the court-imposed deadline. If you are even one day late, the court may enter a default judgment against you, meaning the plaintiff wins the case automatically (at least provisionally).

So, if you are served with a summons, contact your car insurance company that very same day. Typically, each insurance company has a telephone “hotline” staffed twenty-four hours a day. You can call this hotline to report receipt of the lawsuit summons.

Will My Insurance Company Defend Me in Court?

A common feature of most liability car insurance policies is that the insurance company will defend you in the lawsuit if you are sued for occurrences that are covered by your car insurance policy. Typically, the insurance company will hire and pay for a local attorney who is experienced in defending this type of case (unless they try to deny coverage since you were DUI/DWI in connection with the accident).

Even though the insurance company will probably hire an attorney for you, if you received a DUI/DWI, it may be a good idea to discuss your situation with a separate attorney. Where a DUI/DWI is involved, the Plaintiff in a lawsuit often requests punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. While compensatory damages are generally covered by your liability insurance policy, punitive damages generally are not. So, if the court awards punitive damages, you could be faced with having to pay those particular damages out of your own pocket. Learn more about personal injury damages.

What Happens If I Don’t Have Any Insurance?

All states require vehicle owners to have automobile liability insurance or to be able to demonstrate some other form of financial responsibility for a potential car accident. But if for some reason you're driving without car insurance, it's probably a good idea to contact an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your situation. Learn more about what happens if you're in a car accident and you're uninsured.

How Long Can the Lawsuit Take to Resolve?

Some lawsuits get resolved within a few months. Others can take several years. There is no hard and fast rule. (Learn more about the timeline of a typical personal injury lawsuit.) And while the vast majority of car accident claims settle, there is no guarantee that your lawsuit will be resolved in this manner, especially when DUI/DWI is involved.

If I Was DUI, Does That Mean I’m Automatically at Fault for the Accident?

Usually, but it's not a legal certainty. Just because you were cited for -- or convicted of -- a DUI/DWI doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at fault for the car accident. The other driver may be the cause of the accident if that driver ran a stop sign, was speeding, or otherwise failed to obey the traffic laws. Learn more about proving fault for a car accident.

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