Location:
DRUNK DRIVING; LIABILITY, LEGAL; LIQUOR - SERVERS;
Scope:
Connecticut laws/regulations; Court Cases;

OLR Research Report


July 6, 2010

 

2010-R-0288

DUI CIVIL LIABILITY

By: Christopher Reinhart, Chief Attorney

You asked about the civil liability of someone who operates a motor vehicle while intoxicated and causes the death of a passenger in an accident.

This report generally discusses the law as it may apply to such a situation. It does not attempt to apply the law to the specific facts of any case. The Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to give a legal opinion and this report should not be considered one. As always, it is best to consult with an attorney to determine how the law applies to a specific case.

SUMMARY

Someone who operates a motor vehicle while intoxicated and causes the death of a passenger in an accident could be liable in a wrongful death claim by the executor or administrator of the passenger's estate. Such a claim must be based on a legal theory such as the driver's negligence. The driver could be liable for (1) economic damages covering monetary losses and expenses incurred and (2) noneconomic damages covering physical pain and suffering and the destruction of the ability to enjoy life's pleasures.

The driver could also be liable to a surviving spouse in a loss of consortium claim. This claim is for the loss of a spouse's society, affection, moral support, services, sexual relations, or companionship and damages compensate for past and future loss.

A statute also authorizes double or triple damages in a civil action for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage if (1) someone deliberately or with reckless disregard operates a motor vehicle in violation of the drunk driving law or certain other motor vehicle laws and (2) that violation was a substantial factor in causing the injury, death, or damage.

Someone who provides alcohol to a driver can also be liable under certain circumstances. The Dram Shop Act makes a liquor seller liable if the seller or his or her employee sells liquor to an already-intoxicated person who injures a person or property.  Damages a liquor seller must pay are set by the court but cannot exceed $250,000.

Under caselaw, (1) a liquor permittee who sells liquor to an already-intoxicated person who subsequently injures another person because of his or her intoxication can be sued by the injured person if the seller acted wantonly and recklessly and (2) someone who provides alcohol to a minor who subsequently injures another person because of his or her intoxication may be sued by the injured person. It is possible that other types of conduct could also be the basis of a claim.

Depending on the circumstances of a particular case, other types of legal actions may be possible.

WRONGFUL DEATH

The law authorizes an executor or administrator of someone's estate to sue to recover damages from a party who caused injuries resulting in death. The party is liable for damages plus reasonably necessary medical, hospital, and nursing costs and funeral expenses. The executor or administrator must bring the action within two years from the date of death and within five years from the date of the act or omission complained of. An action can be brought at any time if the person at fault is convicted or found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect of certain homicide crimes (CGS 52-555).

A wrongful death cause of action requires that the party seeking relief allege an underlying theory of legal fault and that such fault is the proximate cause of the injury (Ward v. Greene, 267 Conn. 539 (2003)). For example, a plaintiff may allege negligence.

Damages

A plaintiff who prevails in a wrongful death claim can recover certain types of damages. Jury instructions for wrongful death cases state:

Insofar as money can do it, a plaintiff is to receive fair, just and reasonable compensation for all injuries and losses, past and future, which are legally caused by the defendant's proven negligence.  Under this rule, the purpose of an award of damages is not to punish or penalize the defendant for (his/her) negligence but to compensate the plaintiff, and in this case the estate, for the decedent's resulting injuries and losses (CT Civil Jury Instructions 3.4-7, available at: http://www.jud.ct.gov/ji/Civil/part3/3.4-7.htm)

The plaintiff must prove the nature and extent of each particular loss or injury for which he or she seeks damages and that the loss or injury was legally caused by the defendant's negligence.  Once proven, the jury determines what is fair, just, and reasonable compensation (CT Civil Jury Instructions 3.4-7).

There are two general types of damages a plaintiff can recover.

1. Economic damages compensate for monetary losses and expenses incurred, such as the cost of reasonable and necessary medical care and lost earnings. 

2. Noneconomic damages compensate for non-monetary losses and injuries such as physical pain and suffering and the destruction of the ability to enjoy life's pleasures (CT Civil Jury Instructions 3.4-7).

CLAIM BY SPOUSE FOR LOSS OF CONSORTIUM

A person can sue for loss of consortium caused by the death of a spouse. “Loss of consortium” includes the loss of a spouse's society, affection, moral support, services, sexual relations, or companionship. The loss of consortium claim is independent from any suit for damages caused by the death but a loss of consortium suit must be brought with or joined with the suit for the death. The loss of consortium suit has the same statute of limitations as the suit it is joined with.

The law requires the surviving spouse to prove the same facts as for a wrongful death suit and does not limit any defenses that would be available in a wrongful death action. A surviving spouse cannot sue an employer for loss of consortium caused by the death if the spouse has received or is eligible for workers' compensation benefits (CGS 52-555a et seq.).

Damages

A plaintiff who prevails in a loss of consortium claim can recover certain types of damages. Jury instructions state, “Damages awarded for loss of consortium include both past and future loss and are measured by the extent of the loss incurred, to the extent that money can measure it” (CT Civil Jury Instructions 3.4-3, available at: http://www.jud.ct.gov/ji/Civil/part3/3.4-3.htm).

DOUBLE OR TRIPLE DAMAGES IF DELIBERATE OR DONE WITH RECKLESS DISREGARD

The law allows the jury (or the judge if the case is tried without a jury) to award double or triple damages in a civil action for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage if (1) a party deliberately or with reckless disregard operated a motor vehicle in violation of the drunk driving law (CGS 14-227a) or certain other motor vehicle laws and (2) that violation was a substantial factor in causing the injury, death, or damage. The injured party must make a specific pleading on this issue. The owner of a rented or leased motor vehicle is not responsible for double or triple damages unless the damages arose from the owner's operation of the vehicle (CGS 14-295).

Under caselaw, the trier of fact can assess double or triple damages based on the defendant's degree of culpability but it is not required simply because the defendant violated one of the specified motor vehicle statutes (Bebry v. Zanauskas, 81 Conn. App. 586 (2004)).

LIABILITY OF PROVIDERS OF ALCOHOL

A person who provides alcohol to someone who causes an injury or death due to intoxication may also be liable under certain circumstances.

The Dram Shop Act makes a liquor seller liable if the seller or his or her employee sells liquor to an already-intoxicated person who injures a person or property.  The act limits the damages a liquor seller must pay to injured people to $250,000.  The actual amount of liability in a particular case is decided in court.

The injured party must notify the seller of his or her intention to sue for damages within (1) 120 days of the incident causing harm or (2) 180 days of the incident causing harm in the case of death or incapacity of the injured party.  The notice must state (1) the time and day of the sale and to whom it was made; (2) the name and address of the injured party; and (3) the time, day, and place of injury.  Suits must be brought within one year of the sale. The act prohibits negligence actions for conduct covered by the dram shop act involving serving someone age 21 or older (CGS 30-102).

In the 1980s, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that a liquor permittee who sells liquor to an already-intoxicated person who subsequently injures another person because of his or her intoxication can be sued by the injured person if the seller acted wantonly and recklessly (Kowal v. Hofher, 181 Conn. 355 (1980)). The court also ruled that someone who provides alcohol to a minor who subsequently injures another person because of his or her intoxication may be sued by the injured person (Ely v. Murphy, 207 Conn. 88 (1988)).

While the Dram Shop Act specifically prohibits negligence actions for conduct covered by the act involving serving someone age 21 or older, it may be possible to bring a civil action alleging other types of conduct not covered by the act. At least one Superior Court found that a social host who is an occupier of land can be liable for the negligent service of alcohol to an adult under the common law (Piontokowski v. Agan, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1927 (2009)). While there is no binding authority, it is possible that this and other types of conduct could be the basis of a negligence claim.

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