Drunk driving caused 315 deaths in South Carolina in 2020 (MADD). While offenders may face criminal charges, criminal proceedings alone are woefully inadequate to acknowledge the suffering of the victim and their families.
The victim’s surviving family may bring a wrongful death claim. Unlike a criminal proceeding, a civil claim (or, if necessary, a lawsuit) may be initiated by the personal represented or special administrator on behalf of heirs or beneficiaries. Applying a preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, a wrongful death claim may compensate for a range of losses, including medical bills, burial expenses, lost financial support, pain and suffering, and more. (S.C. Code § 15-51-40).
Lawsuits Against a Drunk Driver
When drunk driving causes death, surviving family members may pursue a wrongful death claim. If the claim is not settled, a lawsuit can be filed. Some important things to know about lawsuits against a drunk driver are:
- Bringing a civil wrongful death lawsuit does not depend on whether criminal charges are filed; it is the plaintiff who initiates the case – approval of the police, solicitor’s office or prosecutor is not required;
- In addition to the driver, other parties may be liable as well, like the employer of a drunk driver, a bar or restaurant that over-served alcohol to the drunk driver, or a party host provided alcohol to a minor or the owner of a vehicle;
- A claim may be based on alcohol or drug intoxication;
- Damages may include economic losses and non-economic losses, including pain and suffering
- In the event of the death of the wrongdoer, the claim survives against their personal; representative;
- The personal representative or special administrator must initiate a case for the benefit of the beneficiaries, which may include the spouse, children, parents or heirs, depending on who survives the victim; and
- It is a good idea for the personal representative or special administrator to hire lawyer to assist in pursing a wrongful death claim.
At Bringardner Injury Law Firm, we are wrongful death lawyers. If you have lost a loved one in a DUI accident, contact us to see how we can help you get justice.
Compensation – Damages that Can be Awarded in a DUI Wrongful Death Claim
Damages awarded in a DUI wrongful death claim may include:
- Funeral expenses
- Burial expenses
- Medical bills before death
- Lost financial support
- Value of the deceased’s experience, judgment and guidance for family members
- Pain and suffering of surviving family members
- Loss of care, companionship and relationship
- Exemplary damages if legal requirements are met
See S.C. Code § 15-51-40, stating that the jury may award damages proportioned to the injury to the beneficiaries resulting from the victim’s death.
Factors for Success
Suing a drunk driver for a fatal DUI accident requires special care and attention to several legal issues. Because of the preventable loss of life, each DUI wrongful death claim is an extremely important, intensive undertaking. Just as our lawyers fight rigorously on behalf of victims and their families, we expect the insurance company for the drunk drive will likely fight to avoid liability and pay as little as possible.
Care must be taken to secure and present scientific evidence in an effective way. Although drunk driving investigations happen each day in South Carolina, they are highly scientific investigations, typically involving chemical testing. Scrutiny must be given to the testing procedure used in anticipation of defense efforts to invalidate the tests.
Careful attention must be given to support each category of damages with admissible evidence. Expert testimony is often required and should be pursued as needed to prove any element of the claim including negligence, causation, and damages. Finally, avenues for the collection of damages must be considered from the very beginning of the claim.
Each case has its own unique legal issues and questions. Effective legal advocacy identifies the legal issues and areas of focus for each case. At Bringardner Injury Law Firm, we create the customized approach that you deserve. This personalized attention focuses on doing everything we can to reach a favorable outcome in your case.
Estoppel – Criminal Convictions and DUI Wrongful Death Lawsuits
When a drunk driver faces criminal charges, the victims should pay close attention to the proceedings. Whether the criminal case results in a guilty plea or a trial verdict may be relevant to their wrongful death claim. The legal doctrine of estoppel may apply to prevent the defendant from relitigating certain facts or positions they took in the criminal case.
Judicial estoppel precludes a party from adopting a position in conflict with one taken earlier in the same or related litigation. It applies to inconsistent statements of fact but does not apply to conclusions of law or legal theories. (Hayne Federal Credit Union v. Bailey, 327 S.C. 242, 251 (1997)).
Collateral estoppel prevents relitigation of an issue if a final judgment on the merits has been reached in a prior claim. Collateral estoppel is not mechanically applied, and due process concerns must be addressed in its use. (Carrigg v. Cannon, 347 S.C. 75 (2002), the court declining to apply collateral estoppel where the sheriff and sheriff’s deputy were not considered in legal privity; see also Richburg v. Baughman, 290 S.C. 431, 434 (1986)).
Although it may seem like any guilty plea or verdict in the criminal case should be outcome determinative in a subsequent wrongful death claim, that isn’t always the case. Application of the estoppel doctrine can be discretionary and technical. The issue that was decided in the prior criminal action must be decisive in the civil action. For example, in Cothran v. Brown, the Court of Appeals reversed partial summary judgment based on judicial estoppel. In Cothran, the issue in the civil matter was comparative negligence and relative culpability which was not determined in the criminal proceeding. (350 S.C. 352, S.C. Ct. App. 2002).
When applicable, estoppel can be asserted in the wrongful death claim. However, it’s critical to understand the legal nuances to determine whether it applies and what arguments to anticipate against it.
As experienced drunk driving wrongful death lawyers, our team can determine if estoppel may apply and how to appropriately pursue it in your claim.
Filing Wrongful Death Claims Against Drunk Drivers
At Bringardner Injury Law Firm, we bring wrongful death claims against drunk drivers. If you have lost a loved one in a drunk driving accident, we want you to get justice and the financial compensation you deserve.
Contact us today to talk to our legal team and begin.