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Is Drunk Driving A Crime Or A Civil Tort?


Data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that approximately 10,100 people lost their lives in alcohol-involved accidents in 2019. Florida’s Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) recorded 759 fatalities where either alcohol or drugs were involved. Drunk drivers face serious penalties, but sometimes it can be confusing as to who has the right to initiate proceedings against them. Is drunk driving a crime or a civil tort? The answer is that it can be both, but an injured plaintiff may only file a civil lawsuit against someone who drove drunk and harmed them.

Civil vs Criminal Cases

It is true that a drunk driver may face criminal charges, particularly if the injuries and/or damages they caused were significant. However, only a Florida state’s attorney may decide to file suit against them; the injured victim can assist or decline to assist in such a case, but they have no role in criminal prosecution. Whether the state decides to initiate criminal proceedings or not, however, the injured victim has the right to file a civil lawsuit against the drunk driver if they believe the injuries they suffered were directly because of the driver’s negligent actions.

Some families do not see the point of filing civil charges against a drunk driver if that person already faces time in jail – but there is a major reason to do so, which is that criminal cases do not yield monetary damages. If you prevail in a civil suit against a drunk driver, they may wind up on the hook for significant amounts, which you can in turn use to help keep your family finances afloat while you recover. In addition, civil cases require a lower standard of proof – criminal cases require a prosecutor to establish their case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while Florida civil cases make it generally easier to establish liability.

Should I Go First Or Last?

Once you have decided to file a civil lawsuit against a drunk driver, the question that concerns a lot of potential plaintiffs is whether the civil proceeding should start before the criminal case or the reverse. While this choice may be made for you in that the state’s attorney may simply file first, it is still recommended to file your civil suit after criminal proceedings have concluded. This may seem counterintuitive, but it can actually make your drunk driving lawsuit much easier to win.

The reason for this is that in Florida, the records from the criminal trial are usable in your civil case, and if the defendant is convicted of driving under the influence or another drunk driving-related crime, it may give your attorney the right to argue a concept called negligence per se. Negligence per se in Florida is when someone violates a law or ordinance that is designed to protect a certain class of people, and injures or kills a member of that specific class. This is common in drunk driving cases, where laws against the practice are designed to protect pedestrians and other drivers, but those classes are highly represented in drunk driving fatalities. Between this doctrine and the records from the criminal trial, you may have a better chance of prevailing in your case if you file after the criminal trial is complete.

Call A Tampa DUI Attorney

Driving under the influence is seen as a serious crime in Florida, but in addition to criminal charges, an alleged drunk driver can (and very often will) face a civil lawsuit for money damages from the plaintiff they injured. If you have questions about a potential DUI accident case, contacting the Tampa drunk driving accident attorneys from the Rinaldo Law Group can help to get them answered. Call our offices today for a free consultation.



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