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What to Do if You are Hit by a Drunk Driver in New Jersey

Despite generations of public service announcements and driver education on the dangers of drinking and driving, drunk driving remains one of the top causes of serious and fatal accidents in Essex County and throughout New Jersey. Whether you’re driving on a major thoroughfare like the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, or I-287, a main road like Route 22, or a side street, it only takes one drunk driver to change your life permanently.

Under New Jersey law, you have legal recourse, but remember that you need to act quickly to protect your rights. If you are hit by a drunk driver, here is what you need to know.

As with any accident, call the police right away

Whether a drunk driver hits you or not, you should always call the police after a car accident. This is particularly important after crashes involving DUI because drunk drivers can be unpredictable. Of course, you still need to exchange contact and insurance information with the other driver, but it may be best to wait until the police arrive so they can keep the situation under control.

If the drunk driver flees the scene, try to get their vehicle’s color, make, model, and license plate number, but don’t pursue. Leave that to the police.

Getting prompt medical attention is critical

Even if you feel fine, you need to put your health first. Ideally, you should get checked out by an EMT at the scene, then go to an urgent care, emergency room, or your primary care provider (PCP) if they have walk-in hours or same-day appointments. If it has already been some time since the accident and you haven’t seen a doctor yet, do so as soon as possible.

Getting medical attention is important for two reasons. First, it protects your health, and second, it protects your legal rights. Seeing a doctor creates a record of your injuries and demonstrates that you are taking them seriously. The more time goes by before you go to the doctor, the easier it is for an insurance company to dispute or downplay your injuries.

Can you sue a drunk driver in New Jersey?

In general, yes, you can file a third-party claim or a lawsuit against a drunk driver if you were seriously injured in a crash.

Keep in mind that your claim for damages is a civil matter, separate and distinct from any criminal charges such as DUI that the State of New Jersey may bring in connection with the same accident. In particular, the standard of proof in civil court is called “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much lower bar to clear than the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal court. That means you can potentially win your civil case even if the suspected drunk driver is ultimately not convicted of a crime.

A more practical concern, however, is that drunk drivers often do not have insurance or don’t have enough to pay for the full cost of the injuries they cause. However, New Jersey law gives you additional recourse under some circumstances.

Can you sue the establishment that served alcohol to the drunk driver?

New Jersey’s “dram shop” law allows you to file a civil lawsuit against a bar, restaurant, or another vendor that served alcohol to the drunk driver. To have a “dram shop” claim against a business, you need to prove one of the following:

  • The vendor continued to serve alcohol to the drunk driver while they were visibly intoxicated, or
  • The vendor knew, or should have known, that the person they were serving was under the legal drinking age (21).

These cases can be difficult to win, however. Often, it’s necessary to review camera footage or interview witnesses to show that the drunk driver was visibly intoxicated. Receipts and purchase records may be needed to establish a timeline of when alcohol was served. An experienced car accident lawyer can thoroughly investigate and get to the bottom of what happened.

What if the drunk driver was served alcohol at a private party or event?

New Jersey law also allows you to take legal action against a social host (for instance, the host of a party who served alcohol to guests) under similar circumstances. To sue a social host, you need to show that the person who caused your accident was “visibly intoxicated” in the presence of the host, or that the circumstances created an “unreasonable risk” of harm to life or property, and that you were injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by the intoxicated person.

In addition, if a social host negligently served alcohol to a minor under the age of 21, you may be able to take legal action against the social host.

Again, these are complex, factually intensive cases that require thorough investigation and documentation. You need a lawyer on your side to conduct that investigation and build a winning legal strategy.

You need an experienced car accident attorney on your side

A common mistake among people hit by drunk drivers is to assume they will be taken care of financially for their losses. Remember, the police and prosecutors work for the state, and their job is to deal with offenders, not get compensation for victims. You need to have your attorney on your side throughout the process, both to get to the bottom of what happened and pursue accountability, and to calculate the full amount of financial compensation you need and deserve for your injuries.

The key is to act fast. In New Jersey, you generally have up to two years to take legal action against a driver who caused your accident, but time can weaken your case in other ways. Evidence can disappear, and witnesses can become more difficult to track down. It costs nothing to at least talk to an attorney about your legal options, and trying to go it alone can be a huge mistake. If you were hit by a drunk driver in New Jersey, talk to a car accident attorney in your area today.

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