California law provides several options for drivers who are hit by an underinsured or uninsured driver who was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time. They include:
- Suing the DUI driver;
- Suing a liable third party, if any; and/or
- If the injured driver has such coverage, making a claim under the injured party’s own:
- Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (UMC/UIM),
- Med Pay auto insurance, or
- Personal health insurance policy.
Of these, the best option is to have uninsured motorist coverage. We highly recommend that every California driver purchase UMC/UIM with the highest policy limits he or she can afford.
Before we get into each of the above options in more detail, let’s review some California car insurance basics.
California’s mandatory 15/30/5 insurance requirement
California law requires drivers and vehicle owners to maintain a minimum of “15/30/5” auto liability insurance. This means that for any single accident the insurance will cover up to:
- $15,000 for the death or bodily injury of one person;
- $30,000 total for the wrongful death or bodily liability of all people hurt or killed in the accident; and
- $5,000 for property damage.
Most insurers sell policies with limits greater than 15/30/5. But higher limits cost more money. So many California drivers purchase only the minimum coverage required by law.
And according to the Insurance Information Institute, as many as 15% or more of California drivers carry no liability insurance at all.
Lawsuits to recover damages caused by DUI drivers
Motorists injured by a DUI driver have the right to sue the driver for damages. As a practical matter, however, many people with assets will have car insurance.
So lawsuits against the driver are most common when the driver has assets and:
- The plaintiff’s damages exceed the limits of the DUI driver’s liability insurance, or
- The plaintiff is seeking an award of punitive damages, which liability insurance does not cover.
What about suing a third party?
In some cases, there may be a third party that can be held liable for an accident caused by a DUI driver.
Third parties who might be liable for an accident caused by a driver who is under the influence include:
The DUI driver’s employer
Under California’s “respondeat superior” law, a driver’s employer may be liable for an accident if the driver was driving within the scope of his or her employment. People who drive as part of their job include:
- Taxi, limo and ride-sharing drivers;
- Commercial truckers;
- Delivery people; and
Note that an employer is NOT liable, however, if the driver was on his or her way to or from work.
The vehicle’s owner (if it isn’t owned by the driver)
Just because a driver is uninsured it doesn’t mean the accident is not covered by insurance. The accident will be covered as long as:
- The owner of the vehicle has liability insurance, and
- The car was being driven with the consent of the owner.
Someone who entrusted a car to a DUI driver
Someone who loans or rents a car to another person may be liable for an accident that person causes if:
- The driver was drunk or stoned when taking the wheel, and
- The person who loaned or rented the car knew it.
This situation is known as “negligent entrustment.” But proving knowledge in such cases can be difficult.
What about someone who sold or served the driver alcohol?
People who sell or serve alcohol to others are generally not responsible for drunk driving accidents. Thus bars, liquor stores, and party hosts cannot usually be sued for serving alcohol.
There may be some situations in which liability applies, such as if the person was underage.
But in most situations, suing a bar, liquor store or event host is not a feasible option.