Articles Posted in Alcohol-Related Accident

A Tennessee trial court and appellate court each concluded that the family of man killed when a drunk driver plowed into his apartment with her vehicle could not pursue a liability claim against the bar where the woman drank on the night of the accident. Tennessee law imposes clear restrictions on the potential liability of sellers of alcohol. Because the woman who caused the accident received her alcohol as a result of drinks ordered by, and served to, other bar patrons, and did not order, purchase or receive any drinks directly from bar staff, the establishment could not be held liable.

In March 2011, Ms. Langworthy crashed her vehicle into the apartment of Mr. Smith, killing him. Langworthy had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit at the time of the accident. Smith’s family sued the driver and the bar at which she was drinking that night. After the accumulation of several affidavits, the bar moved for summary judgment. The bar claimed that the drinks the woman consumed inside the bar were all requested, purchased and received by male companions or acquaintances and that the bar’s employees never served Langworthy.

The trial court sided with the bar, granting summary judgment. The court determined that the uncontested evidence showed that Langworthy did not order or pay for alcohol at the bar and the bar’s staff did not directly provide drinks to her.

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A recent decision from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee reaffirms the rule that police officers cannot be held liable for failing to stop or arrest a drunk driver. In Harris v. City of Knoxville, a pedestrian brought suit against Knoxville and two police officers individually after he was seriously injured by a drunk driver. As it turned out, the drunk driver had been stopped only a short time before he struck the pedestrian by a suspicious police officer. After investigating, however, the officer determined that while the passenger of the vehicle may have been intoxicated, it did not appear that the driver was drunk or driving under the influence of drugs. No field sobriety test was administered.

The injured pedestrian plaintiff’s suit alleged several claims against the officers and the City, but the case turned on whether the failure to stop the drunk driver was a deprivation of the injured plaintiff’s due process rights. This appears to have been a creative attempt by the plaintiff to recover damages for his injuries, but well-established case law should have foreshadowed the outcome. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County which held “a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” The District Court set out the test for determining whether an individual could sue as an exception to the general rule in DeShaney. In order to bring a claim under the “state created danger” exception, a plaintiff must show: (1) an affirmative act by the state that either created or increased the risk that the plaintiff would be exposed to an act of violence by a third party; (2) a special danger to the plaintiff wherein the state’s actions placed the plaintiff specifically at risk, as distinguished from a risk that affects the public at large; and (3) the state knew or should have known that its actions specifically endangered the plaintiff. Under this test, it seems fairly clear that a police officer cannot be held responsible for failing to arrest a drunk driver. First, under such a circumstance the officer does not “create” or “increase” any risk. And, second, letting a drunk driver continue driving does not specifically endanger any individual, but rather poses a risk (at most) to the general public. And this is exactly what the District Court held.

Indeed, given the relative ease in which the District Court dismissed this case, it seems somewhat surprising that it was even brought in the first place. If the attorney for the plaintiff had done more than a cursory review of the law, it would have been hard to conclude that the case would be held viable by the District Court. While a plaintiff injured through no fault of his own certainly deserves compensation, that doesn’t necessarily mean a case should always be brought. Here, it seems likely that the responsible driver didn’t have car insurance or didn’t have sufficient car insurance, and that the plaintiff also didn’t have uninsured (UM) motorist coverage. As a result, the plaintiff tried to hold a third party (the police) responsible for the injuries caused by the drunk driver. The result of the case, though, makes clear that even if the police behave negligently in letting a drunk driver continue driving, neither the police officers nor their employer can be held liable for any resulting injuries.

A recent news story here in Nashville illustrates the importance of seat belts in saving lives and preventing injuries in serious car accidents. Channel 5 reported on a drunk driving accident on Nolensville road in which one driver crossed the center line and sideswiped several cars before colliding head on with another car. The drunk driver was killed and pronounced dead at the scene, as was, tragically, a 4 year old child passenger in the car hit head on. The child was apparently thrown from the vehicle and had not been properly belted in the car.

There are so many tragic aspects of this story. Obviously, there appears to be little doubt that the accident was caused by the reckless actions of the striking driver in choosing to drive under the influence of alcohol. But that, unfortunately, is just a fact that other drivers and passengers need to be aware of. Even during the afternoon, you might encounter another driver who is drunk, or distracted by their cellphone or texting. The absolute best thing you can do to protect yourself from other drivers is to wear your seat belt, and make sure that children in the car are buckled up (and dont take their belt off). As the Tennessee State Trooper noted in the news story, neither fatality would likely have occurred had the driver and the child been properly restrained.

There is an additional, potential tragic aspect to this story. The drunk driver is reported to have not had a valid driver’s license. My guess is that, given that, she likely didn’t have liability insurance to cover damages and injuries she caused to others. The mother of the young child, who is also reported injured in the wreck, may not have any means to recover for her injuries and her child’s death against the negligence drunk driver unless she had acquired uninsured motorist (UM) coverage. Just as wearing a seat belt is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from injury in a car accident, making sure that you carry sufficient UM coverage is the most important thing you can do to make sure you are compensated if you are injured by the negligence of another driver. Tennessee law requires that insurance companies offer UM coverage in an amount equal to the amount of liability coverage that you carry. However, many drivers simply don’t understand what the UM coverage is and decline it in the hopes of saving a few dollars on their premiums. It is a strange outcome indeed when drivers protect others that they might hurt more than they protect themselves from the consequences of other drivers’ negligence. I hope that the injured mother in this tragic drunk driving accident carried sufficient UM coverage; that won’t bring back her child, but it can help ensure that she doesn’t otherwise suffer because she can’t afford medical care for herself or loses income while she recovers from her injuries and the loss of her child.

Driving under the influence in Nashville, as in cities across the country, is a serious offense. One of the primary reasons is that innocent victims of DUI accidents often suffer serious injuries, including burns, broken bones and head trauma; many die. Law enforcement makes it a priority to police the roads and highways to prevent DUI accidents from occurring. If you or someone you know has been the victim of an alcohol-related injury, you may be entitled to recover damages. You are encouraged to contact an experienced Nashville attorney who can help to protect your rights.

The manner in which law enforcement determines whether a suspected drunk driver is in fact driving under the influence has become the subject of some controversy in Tennessee. The highest court in the state recently agreed to hear a case involving a suspected drunk driver who was arrested for DUI despite having passed a myriad of field sobriety tests. Dwayne Bell was pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road, a traffic infraction in its own right. At that point, the police officer asked Bell to perform field sobriety tests. He agreed and passed six separate tests. Nevertheless, the officer still believed that Bell was drunk and arrested him. Later, he was subjected to a blood test, which revealed that Bell’s blood alcohol level was 0.15 percent, almost twice the legal limit.

Bell moved to suppress the blood-alcohol evidence and claimed that he was arrested without probable cause, as he successfully performed the field sobriety tests. The two lower courts agreed that the officer had no probable cause on which to arrest Bell. The DUI charges were dismissed. Among other things, the appellate court pointed out that the state is not obligated to conduct field sobriety tests before arresting someone for driving under the influence. But, the court noted, if the state decides to administer the tests, it may not choose to disregard the results if the driver performs them successfully. The court also pointed out that although the driver in this case was operating his vehicle on the wrong side of the road at the time he was pulled over, there was construction in the particular area, which could have accounted for the driving infraction.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office requested that the Supreme Court hear the case. Hopefully, the ultimate decision will provide guidance to law enforcement as to the meaning of field sobriety tests in the face of little or no other evidence of drunk driving. It is no surprise that advocates for stricter DUI laws are concerned about the impact of this decision, especially families who have lost loved ones at the hands of a drunk driver. Others see the merit in protecting an individual’s rights not to be arrested without probable cause.

There is a delicate balancing act that must take place, weighing the prevention of alcohol-related accidents and injuries with an individual’s rights. Despite all of this, drunk-driving accidents do happen, and all too often innocent victims are injured or even killed.

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Drivers on the road in Tennessee, like everywhere else in the country, have many more distractions than ever. There are incoming (and outgoing) cell phone calls, “hands-free” gadgets to connect, email and text messages that need to be sent or read, possibly even hundreds of satellite radio channels to choose from, while GPS devices guide us on unfamiliar roads. All of these distractions can lead to accidents.

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, the number one cause of teen deaths on the roads is distracted driving. In fact, just last year, traffic fatalities involving teens increased 10 percent in Tennessee. If you have been in a car accident, it is important to speak with an experienced Nashville attorney to help you understand your rights.

According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the roads have become more dangerous for people of all ages, over the past year. In 2012, the number of fatalities on Tennessee roads has increased from the past year by 7 percent. The numbers jumped from 937 to 1,022 deaths. If you look closer at the breakdown of the statistics, fatalities from motorcycle accidents also increased over the past year from 114 deaths in 2011, to 139 in 2012. While the crash statistics indicate that 2011 saw the lowest number of fatalities on the roads in 48 years, the increase in the past year is concerning. And unfortunately, although it is only February, the 2013 fatality statistics are already up from last year during the same time period: 71 deaths in 2012 compared with 75 in 2013.

While driver distraction plays a role in these jarring statistics, there are certainly other factors to blame. Although information about driver safety is widely publicized, many of these accidents occur as a result of the failure to take safety precautions. Law enforcement personnel frequently issue tickets to drivers and passengers for not wearing seatbelts, even though it is commonly regarded as a proven measure to reduce the number of serious automobile injuries and fatalities. Additionally, drivers continue to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, putting others on the road at unnecessary risk.
Keep in mind that these numbers reflect only fatalities, and fail to represent the many serious injuries from which victims suffer as a result of automobile and motorcycle accidents. People suffer from broken bones, brain injuries, burns, and other catastrophic injuries that could permanently alter a person’s life. As a result of these injuries, victims may have claims for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, lost future earning capacity, and permanent injury or disfigurement.

One of the reasons cited for reporting the increasing statistics is to encourage people to think about how their risky driving behaviors could lead to serious injuries and death, to themselves and to innocent people. No matter how much information is available to drivers, be it safety suggestions or shocking fatality statistics, accidents will occur. The best course of action is to consult with an experienced attorney who can help you navigate the legal system to protect your rights to any claims for damages.

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