Who is Responsible for Injury to the Passenger of a Drunk Driver?
In mid-November, an automobile driven by a Lowell woman crashed into two houses in Manchester, injuring the driver and her passenger. The driver was charged with driving while intoxicated. And, because her passenger was injured while she was allegedly driving under the influence, she also faces felony second degree assault charges.
The case is still under investigation, but the incident raises questions about who is responsible for injuries to a passenger riding with the at-fault driver. When you think about a personal injury case involving a car accident, you generally think of a negligent driver who struck another vehicle, a pedestrian, a motorcyclist or a bicyclist. In other words, a situation where the injured party was not in the car with the negligent driver.
However injuries–and even fatalities–among passengers are common. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 23,033 occupants of passenger vehicles died in traffic accidents in 2018. That figure includes those killed in car, SUV, light truck crashes. Of those, more than ¼, or 5,862, were passengers.
So, what happens if you are injured while riding in a vehicle with a friend or family member?
A Negligent Driver May be Liable to an Injured Passenger
Generally speaking, if a passenger is injured due to the driver’s negligence, the driver may be liable for the passenger’s damages. If the driver is insured, the driver’s automobile insurance company will typically be responsible for the damages much in the same way it would if the injured party were a pedestrian or the occupant of another vehicle. But, there are limitations.
If the passenger’s own negligence contributed to the accident, that negligence may reduce or even eliminate her right to recover damages. In the case of a drunk driving accident, for instance, the driver may argue that a passenger who knowingly got in the car with an intoxicated driver was negligent herself, and therefore partially responsible for her own injuries.
The fact that an injured person, including a passenger, was partly responsible doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she can’t recover damages. But, damages will be reduced to account for the percentage of fault assigned to the injured person. And, someone who is more than 50% responsible can’t recover damages at all.
Assumption of the Risk
In simple terms, assumption of the risk is a legal defense based on the injured person’s conscious choice to take a chance and participate in something he or she knows is dangerous. Massachusetts does not recognize this defense. So, in Massachusetts, an injured party isn’t barred from recovering damages just because he or she knew about the risk in advance.
However, assumption of the risk is a possible defense in many other states, including New Hampshire. For example, a driver who injured his passenger in a street race might argue that the passenger had assumed the risk if he got into the car intending to take part in the illegal street race and recognizing that meant that the driver would be operating at high speeds and disregarding traffic safety laws.
Every Passenger Injury Case is Different
Like all personal injury claims, the strength and value of a passenger injury case depends on the specifics of the case. The passenger may have been an innocent victim, or may have contributed to the accident in some way. Injuries may be minor, serious, or even life-altering. There may or may not be other potentially liable parties, such as the driver of another vehicle.
The best way to learn more about your rights and options after a serious car accident is to speak with an experienced motor vehicle accident attorney. Attorney Kevin P. Broderick has been helping car accident victims and other injury victims recover fair compensation for decades.