Legal Issues In Drunk Driving Matters

Two recent incidents in Lake Charles highlight some common issues in many drunk driving negligence cases.

One case involved a car crash at the intersection of Elliott and Lafanette. According to Sheriff’s deputies, 32-year-old Jorge Castillo crossed the center line and collided with a female motorist. When they questioned Mr. Castillo, deputies claimed that he was intoxicated, based on an odor of alcohol, unsteady balance, and slurred speech. Mr. Castillo refused to answer questions, perform field sobriety tests, or submit to a chemical test. Nevertheless, he was arrested and charged with DUI.

On the same day, and in an unrelated incident, Sheriff’s deputies pulled over 35-year-old Tate Vander on Hollis Road in Westlake, after a tipster’s report about erratic driving. When questioned, Mr. Vander said he was “buzzed” after consuming prescription medications and alcohol; deputies did see an open container of alcohol in his vehicle, along with four Soma pills. He was transported to a local hospital where he submitted to a blood test; the test results were not made available. He was also booked into jail on several charges, including DUI.

Standard of Proof

“Drunk driving” is a misnomer in civil court. In criminal court, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant was intoxicated, beyond a reasonable doubt. But in a negligence case, the plaintiff need only establish that the tortfeasor (negligent driver) was impaired, by a preponderance of the evidence.

Put another way, to support a DUI conviction, the evidence must conclusively show that the defendant had completely lost the normal use of his or her mental or physical faculties; the evidence can either be circumstantial (field tests) or presumptive (a BAC above the legal limit). In civil court, the evidence must only suggest that the tortfeasor had been drinking, because impairment begins at one drink, in most cases.

As indicated in the above stories, circumstantial evidence of alcohol consumption includes:

  • Erratic driving,
  • Unsteady balance,
  • Bloodshot eyes, and
  • Odor of alcohol.

None of these items are proof of intoxication. People drive erratically for all sorts of reasons other than alcohol impairment, lack of sleep or cigarette smoke can cause bloodshot eyes, an odor of alcohol only establishes that the person had been drinking, and so on. But these items are sufficient to prove liability in civil court. In fact, because of the low standard of proof, if the tortfeasor visited a place where alcohol is served, the jury might be able to conclude that s/he had been drinking and was therefore impaired.

Victims in impaired driving crashes are often entitled to significant compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Lake Charles, contact Hoffoss Devall. We do not charge upfront legal fees in car crash cases.