In the vast majority of DUI negligence cases, it will be the person behind the wheel who is deemed solely responsible for injuries resulting from the act of driving while impaired. There may in some instances be third-party negligence, such as by the bar where employees served alcohol to someone who was underage or clearly already drunk.
But usually, the person who suffers injury as a result of a drunk driver’s actions isn’t considered at-fault.
The recent case of Ludlow v. Wise, before the Wyoming Supreme Court, is an exception. Here, a jury decided the passenger, who allegedly knew the driver was impaired and asked him for a ride anyway, held some part of the blame for the injuries she sustained as a result. When a plaintiff in an injury lawsuit is deemed partially responsible for his or her own injuries, this is called comparative fault.
Luckily, in Wyoming – just as in South Carolina – comparative fault does not prevent someone from receiving compensation. (In some states, like North Carolina, a finding of comparative fault will bar the right to compensation.) It will, however, reduce the amount of compensation received, so it’s important if comparative fault is established to limit it to whatever extent possible.
In the Ludlow case, defendant was the sometimes-boyfriend of plaintiff, and they had known each other for about two years. The morning of the accident, defendant began drinking at his home around 9 a.m. He then went to a local bar about two hours later, where he consumed several beers, liquor shots and rum-and-cola drinks.
Plaintiff, meanwhile, had been at a different bar that morning, where she also consumed a number of alcoholic beverages. She met up with defendant and ate lunch. She then asked defendant for a ride around 5 p.m.
The pair only made it a short distance before defendant lost control of his Corvette while driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The car slammed into a concrete stairway and was totaled. Defendant conceded to officers on scene that he’d been drinking. Two hours after the crash, his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.14 percent.
Plaintiff suffered injuries, and was transported to a nearby hospital with contusions, bruises and abrasions. She was later diagnosed with damage to the discs of her cervical and lumbar spine, and suffers ongoing back pain.
In a subsequent car accident lawsuit, plaintiff alleged defendant’s negligence proximately caused her injuries. Following a four-day trial, jurors did find defendant negligent – but only 55 percent. The jury determined plaintiff was 45 percent at fault for her own injuries, and thus her total amount of compensation was slashed by 45 percent.
She appealed and defendant cross-appealed, but the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed.
Plaintiff argued the jury should not have been allowed to consider comparative fault in this case, given that defendant admitted fault in his testimony and presented little to no evidence of negligence on her part, and that the court should have ruled out comparative fault as a matter of law. However, the court ruled the issue was rightly classified as an issue of fact for the jury, which was free to ascertain the degree of fault based on evidence presented that plaintiff was aware – or should have been aware – of defendant’s consumption of alcohol and asked him for a ride anyway.
This is not to say all injured persons in this same situation will find themselves losing out on a fair amount of compensation. Generally, juries are reluctant to place a significant amount of blame on anyone but the impaired driver. But this case does show how a finding of comparative fault can damage plaintiff’s claim, which is why it’s so imperative to hire an experienced legal team.
Contact the South Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Ludlow v. Wise, March 24, 2015, Wyoming Supreme Court
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