Prosecutors filed charges against a man who was allegedly intoxicated when he caused a fatal car crash last October.
The wreck occurred in Aiken County near the intersection of Indigo Road and Camp Rawls Road. According to investigators and witnesses, Daniel Garvin, of Wagener, left the road and smacked into a tree. He remains hospitalized a full year after the crash as he struggles to recover from serious injuries. A passenger in the vehicle – 39-year-old Eric Carver, of Wagener – died at the scene due to multiple trauma injuries.
When he recovers, Mr. Garvin will face DUI manslaughter charges; investigators believe that Mr. Carver was properly restrained.
First Party Liability in Alcohol Crash Cases
Victims in these cases can establish liability by either direct or circumstantial evidence. Many serious injury cases must rely on circumstantial evidence of impairment, which may seem like a daunting requirement. But in most cases, impairment begins at one drink. The plaintiff need not prove that the tortfeasor (negligent driver) was “drunk”; instead, the plaintiff must only establish that the tortfeasor was impaired to the extent that s/he could not safely operate a motor vehicle.
Circumstantial intoxication evidence includes things like:
- Odor of Alcohol: In a civil case, because of the lower standard of proof, an odor emanating from the tortfeasor’s clothes or the inside of the car, as opposed to the tortfeasor’s breath, is normally evidence of impairment.
- Bloodshot Eyes: Vision is one of the most critical senses when it comes to driving, and any abnormal impairment, especially at night, simply makes it too dangerous to drive.
- Unsteady Balance: If a tortfeasor has a hard time standing up straight or walking normally, the tortfeasor would also have a hard time controlling a steering wheel and using the pedals.
The “lower standard of proof” is a preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not. In fact, if there is evidence that the tortfeasor visited a restaurant or other establishment that serves alcohol, a jury can conclude that, more likely than not, the tortfeasor had been drinking.
If there is direct evidence of impairment, like a DUI conviction or other similar item, the negligence per se (negligence “as such”) shortcut may apply. In a regular negligence case, the plaintiff must prove five elements: the tortfeasor had a legal duty, the tortfeasor breached that duty, the breach caused injury, the injury was legally foreseeable, and the injury resulted in damages. But in negligence per se cases, the plaintiff must only establish:
- Statutory Violation: The tortfeasor must violate a safety statute, like running a stop sign or making an illegal lane change. Non-safety violations, like an expired driver’s license or expired inspection sticker, do not count.
- Violation Caused Damages: A no-seatbelt or broken taillight ticket may be a safety violation, but such infractions do not cause car crashes.
According to the South Carolina Supreme Court, negligence per se essentially creates a presumption in favor of punitive damages, so these additional damages are easier to prove as well.
Third Party Liability in Alcohol Crash Cases
In many cases, both commercial and noncommercial alcohol providers are liable for damages that intoxicated tortfeasors cause.
South Carolina has a court-created dram shop rule that applies to commercial providers like bars, hotels, private clubs, and restaurants. To establish third party dram shop liability, the plaintiff must establish:
- Illegal Sale: Alcohol sales are normally legal unless the customer is under 21 or visibly intoxicated. Age is a strict liability question, because the customer was either over or under 21 and it is not a defense that s/he “looked older” than 21. As for proving visible intoxication, the aforementioned bloodshot eyes and other items normally suffice.
- Foreseeability: Courts have explicitly held that it is foreseeable that an intoxicated or underage patron may drive and may cause a crash. It is also foreseeable that a person who buys alcohol at a store will consume some and become intoxicated.
The victim must also prove that the tortfeasor’s intoxication caused the car crash.
Victims can establish third party social host liability in one of two ways. Under South Carolina law, social hosts are only liable for damages if they serve minors, because such sales are the only ones that the Legislature has declared illegal. If an adult comes to a party, becomes intoxicated, and causes a car crash, the victim must rely on negligent undertaking to prove third party liability. The theory is that persons who voluntarily take on added responsibilities also take on a duty of care. Assume Timmy Tortfeasor goes to a party where alcohol is served. Paul Party Host notices that Timmy is intoxicated and offers to drive him home. However, Paul becomes preoccupied, does not drive Timmy home as he had promised, and the intoxicated Timmy crashes into Velma Victim on his way home.
If Velma establishes that Paul either made a bad situation worse by failing to drive Timmy home or Timmy relied on Paul’s promise, Paul is liable for Velma’s damages.