In the United States, alcohol is responsible for thousands of preventable deaths and injuries every year. Despite the best efforts of policymakers and advocates to prevent accidents (efforts that have proved somewhat effective), drunk driving remains a problem of enormous scale.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) reported 746 fatalities from crashes involving alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both in Florida in a recent year. Newer reports indicated 799 people died due to impaired drivers the following year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further notes that 7,573 people died in Florida crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers during one 10-year period. The two percent of Florida adults who reported drunk driving in the past 30 days was higher than the national average of 1.7 percent.
A long recovery awaits individuals who sustain injuries in these accidents, and the challenges they will face go beyond physical pain and suffering. Many victims also face medical debt, lost wages, and mental trauma.
In such dire circumstances, you may not know where to turn. Thankfully, Florida law provides injured individuals with an avenue toward relief. They may qualify to file a lawsuit against the at-fault party seeking compensation for their hardships.
While liability can also extend to the intoxicated individual, Florida’s dram shop law creates a cause of action against a third party the party that served the alcohol.
What the Law Says?
Under Florida law, “a person who willfully and unlawfully sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person who is not of lawful drinking age or who knowingly serves a person habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such minor or person.”
The law allows victims to seek compensation against any bartender, liquor store owner, or another vendor that served the parties that caused the victims’ injuries. This may considerably increase the value of a drunk driving accident case because it enables victims to pursue third parties that potentially have much more resources.
The text of the Florida dram shop law is found in Florida Statute § 768.125, “Liability for injury or damage resulting from intoxication.” People need to understand that most impaired drivers who cause motor vehicle accidents face criminal charges for driving under the influence (DUI) violations.
There are important distinctions between a criminal DUI case and a civil action for accident-related injuries. A criminal case requires a prosecutor to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, a civil case will only require a defendant to be liable by a preponderance of the evidence, basically translating to “more likely than not.”
Victims should remember this because an acquittal for a DUI charge does not necessarily mean a drunk driver cannot still be liable for civil damages. A driver may not receive a criminal conviction but still bears civil liability to victims.
Drunk Driving Statistics
Alcohol contributes to thousands of car crashes, falls, and burns. In one recent year, nearly 10,000 people died in drunk driving car accidents, accounting for 31 percent of all driving deaths, according to the National Insttute on Aging.
According to the National Highway Transportation Agency (NHTA), approximately one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in the United States involve drunk drivers (with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher). In one recent year, 10,511 people died in these preventable crashes. In fact, on average, more than 10,000 people die every year in drunk-driving crashes.
In Florida specifically, an above-average number of drivers report getting behind the wheel after having too much to drink, which is why the state continues to struggle with drunk driving injuries and fatalities.
When Is a Third Party Liable?
The text of the law determines when an injured individual may hold a third party liable.
Under Florida law, victims may qualify to pursue a lawsuit against two categories of parties:
- Those who serve alcohol to a person under the legal drinking age and
- Those who serve alcohol to known alcoholics.
Let’s consider each category separately.
The Willful Sale of Alcohol to a Minor
The statute uses willful here. Simple negligence does not create liability.
For servers to face liability under the state’s dram shop law, they must know that the person is under the legal drinking age. The plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant had this knowledge using circumstantial or direct evidence.
For example, a teenager demands a drink at a bar. The teenager appears youthful, he wears a high school letterman jacket, and other factors indicate his young age. In this situation, the bartender may face liability if they fail to ID the teen, the teenager drinks alcohol, and causes an accident after leaving the bar. Sufficient circumstantial evidence might exist to establish that the server knew the teenager’s age and willfully ignored it.
However, suppose the teenager looked older and the bartender failed to recognize a fake ID. In that case, this alone does not constitute sufficient circumstantial evidence of willfully serving someone underage.
Serving, selling, or allowing the service of alcohol to a person under 21 is a second-degree misdemeanor under Florida Statute § 562.11. It involves criminal penalties of a jail sentence of as much as 60 days and fines of up to $500. When a minor who drinks alcohol works for an employer who allows the minor to drink on the premises, the employer can face a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Additionally, anyone the intoxicated teenager injures can hold third parties liable for serving the underage individual.
Habitually Addicted Individuals
Most people might assume they can recognize someone with chronic alcohol addiction. However, Florida’s dram shop law imposes a precise definition of habitually addicted.
The legal definition stems from a 1951 case, Todd v. Todd, 56 So. 2d 441, 442 (Fla. 1951). In it, the Florida Supreme Court held that “someone whose habit of indulgence in strong drink is so fixed that he cannot resist getting drunk anytime the temptation is offered, with the inebriety frequent, excessive, and the dominant passion.”
Case law over the years has further fleshed out this definition. Courts have determined that a plaintiff may introduce circumstantial evidence to prove that the vendor knew the person they served was a habitual drunkard. For example, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that shows the vendor was familiar with the person’s drinking habits.
If a bartender serves someone many drinks on many occasions, seeing they become drunk regularly, it might be evidence of third-party liability. However, these cases are extraordinarily fact-specific. Your attorney can advise you whether you might seek compensation from an establishment for overserving someone with an addiction.
What Damages Are Available?
In a civil suit, when a court rules in a plaintiff’s favor, the court will order the defendant to pay damages. Damages are a monetary sum to compensate plaintiffs for their injuries because of the defendant’s negligence or wrongdoing. Damages aim to make injured parties whole again by returning them to the condition that they occupied before the accident.
Generally, two kinds of damages are available to a plaintiff in a dram shop legal case: (1) monetary damages and (2) non-monetary damages.
When a plaintiff seeks monetary damages, they seek compensation for injuries that are quantifiable in a specific dollar amount, such as medical bills and lost wages. Monetary damages are the easiest to prove with financial documents, like medical bills or pay stubs.
Non-monetary damages encompass claims that are difficult to assign a monetary amount, including abstract claims, such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and loss of future earnings.
Proving non-monetary damages is also more challenging because they do not cover monetary losses that you can prove with a bill or note. For this reason, plaintiffs that bring non-monetary claims often must submit the testimony of an expert witness, such as a doctor or psychologist.
Who Cannot Face Dram Shop Lawsuits?
Initially, Florida’s dram shop law was of much greater scope than it is today. In the mid-20th century, the state legislator narrowed the scope of the law to create liability for only two categories: (1) those that served alcohol to an underage drinker and (2) those that served alcohol to a habitual addict.
The social host is one of the most important exceptions to the dram shop law. The law only contemplates individuals and businesses selling alcohol to the public, not those merely providing drinks at a private gathering. Of course, these private social hosts may still face liability under different laws and regulations.
While Florida state law does not allow people to hold social hosts liable for accidents social party guests caused, they can hold social hosts liable for accidents at their parties.
Another important exception to the state dram shop law concerns establishments that sell sealed alcoholic beverages for later consumption. Under Florida dram shop laws, you cannot hold grocery and liquor stores liable.
Are Punitive Damages Available?
Courts use damages to compensate victims for the injuries (financial, physical, and mental) they incurred because of the defendant’s wrongdoing. However, in unusual circumstances, the courts will use damages for another purpose to punish the defendant. These are known as punitive damages.
Punitive damages only apply in extreme circumstances. Generally, the defendant’s conduct must be so appalling that the judge feels compelled to send a message to the defendant and society that such behavior is intolerable. Usually, a court must determine whether the defendant’s actions were wanton and reckless or grossly negligent before awarding punitive damages.
A jury might find a defendant’s drunk or drugged driving particularly deplorable. While juries are more reluctant to issue punitive damages in personal injury cases, drunk driving cases seem to be one major exception because juries tend to view people who operate while intoxicated as taking a knowing risk of causing a traffic accident.
Like many states, Florida imposes criteria for when courts may award punitive damages. According to Florida law, plaintiffs may only recover punitive damages if they can demonstrate that the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.
According to the law, intentional misconduct “means that the defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and the high probability that injury or damage to the claimant will result and, despite that knowledge, intentionally pursued that course of conduct, resulting in injury or damage.”
In a dram shop lawsuit, third-party servers can face liability if they served a man they knew was habitually addicted to alcohol, had a history of drunk driving violations, and was likely to get behind the wheel after they served him.
Of course, the plaintiff must provide evidence proving the server knew the above facts, which may prove difficult.
According to the statute, gross negligence means that the defendant’s “conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.”
For gross negligence, what the third party knew when they served the alcohol is less relevant. The plaintiff only needs to demonstrate that the defendant’s decision to serve alcohol to the person in question constituted a “conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.”
From the plaintiff’s perspective, an award of punitive damages usually means a significant payday. The court often grants the plaintiff compensation that goes well beyond what’s necessary to address the injuries and resulting costs.
Finally, Florida, like some other states, caps punitive damages. Under Florida law, punitive damages may not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant or $500,000.
There is one exception to the punitive damages cap in certain situations, although it is not likely applicable in drunk driving cases. When a defendant’s intentional actions were for financial gain, punitive damages can be as high as four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2,000,000, whichever is greater.
Help for Drunk Driving Victims
Sustaining injuries in a severe car accident can change victims’ lives forever. The things they once took for granted may now be out of reach. If they suffer serious bodily injuries, they may have a long road to recovery, which may involve surgery, rehab, and physical therapy. Moreover, they may face significant medical debt if insurance doesn’t cover this treatment. Additionally, if the injured individuals cannot work for an extended time, they may also lose their jobs.
The burden on victims and their families often proves overwhelming. The reality of the situation is even more excruciating if the accident was due to drunk driving. The driver could have prevented the accident had they decided to take an Uber instead of getting behind the wheel.
For many victims and their families, the path to healing physically and emotionally begins with filing a drunk driving accident lawsuit against the driver. However, the driver may not have significant financial resources in many instances.
Thankfully, Florida law offers victims of alcohol-related accidents other options. Under the state’s dram shop law, the injured may sue the person responsible for the accident and the person or entity that served the alcohol, such as a bar or liquor store owner. This expansion of liability makes a lawsuit more viable and the chances of a significant financial award more likely.
A successful lawsuit against a nightclub or bar may result in an award of compensatory damages, which will help the victim cover the costs of treatment and recovery. The first step toward relief is contacting a drunk driving accident attorney with experience handling dram shop cases.
An attorney understands the nuances of the law and knows what evidence is needed to prove the case. Many drunk driving and dram shop lawsuits require extensive investigation and discovery. An attorney can manage this process efficiently and effectively.
An attorney is more than just a professional in a suit. Attorneys offer a sympathetic voice and candid, reliable advice in times of great uncertainty. Thankfully, many lawyers offer a free initial consultation where the attorney can evaluate the client’s case at no out-of-pocket charge.
Victims shouldn’t hesitate to contact a lawyer, even if they don’t anticipate filing a lawsuit. Drunk driving accident lawsuits require extensive investigation, which can take weeks or even months. Waiting to file means that defendants must wait longer for the aid they may desperately need. Florida imposes a four-year statute of limitations on drunk driving accident cases. Failing to file by this deadline can permanently forfeit your right to legal recourse, so contact a drunk driving accident attorney today.
The four-year time limit under Florida Statute § 95.11(3)(a) relates specifically to personal injury actions. Florida Statute § 95.11(4)(d) stipulates there is only a two-year statute of limitations in wrongful death cases, so families will have even less time to take legal action following the death of a loved one.
Any person with a legal claim against a negligent party for a drunk driving accident should not delay seeking legal representation. A lawyer will need significant time to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding a crash properly.
While many families are still grieving after one of these accidents, waiting too long may not allow a lawyer enough time to properly handle the case. The victims can lose the ability to hold the negligent party accountable.