A mid-March motorcycle accident in Haverhill, Massachusetts involving a pickup truck left the motorcycle rider in serious condition and the pickup driver charged with DUI, possession of a Class B drug (cocaine), and leaving the scene of an injury accident among other possible charges. Police reported that the pickup driver had refused a breath test, though officers noted the distinctive odor of alcohol on her breath and numerous open containers of beer and other alcohol in the truck.
The accident allegedly occurred when the pickup driver was making a left turn on River Street to the I-495 ramp when she collided with the motorcycle. Her truck was found 600 feet away from the collision, which police claim is evidence of fleeing the scene, though the driver claimed the deployment of her airbag caused her to travel that distance before stopping. The driver also declined to perform any field sobriety tests claiming that a medical condition prevented her.
Is Liability Obvious?
Many serious car accidents are caused by drunk drivers. Alcohol impairs judgement and control of a motor vehicle, and proof of intoxication in car accident injury cases is often cited as proof of liability. Since the motorcycle operator in this case suffered severe injuries, it is likely he will seek civil damages from the pickup driver.
However, the circumstances of this accident do not automatically point to the pickup driver as the wholly liable party if at all. There were no witnesses to the accident, and the intoxication of the pickup driver, even if proved, does not automatically infer, or presume, liability. In pursuing an injury claim against the driver, the injured rider will need a competent and experienced motor vehicle accident attorney to vigorously prosecute his claim since this case appears to present issues regarding fault.
In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a higher standard of proof than in a civil claim. In a typical drunk driving case involving an injury, a guilty plea or a conviction is often enough to satisfy the driver’s insurer of its insured’s liability for the accident and injuries to the victim. In this matter, though, there is likely no breath or blood test since the driver refused to take one, no field sobriety tests to judge her coordination, no witnesses to her driving behavior, and no conclusive evidence of whether the motorcycle driver was the one who negligently struck her vehicle. She also passed roadside eye tests that are given to detect possible drug use. It is possible that the police incident report could reveal other observations by officers of the driver’s demeanor and behavior, such as slurred speech, being unsteady on her feet, vomiting, or displaying aggressive behavior that could sway a jury to find impairment by the driver.
While the possession of cocaine is not particularly beneficial for the driver in assessing her overall character, it is not proof of fault. A prosecutor can claim that her leaving the scene is evidence of her consciousness of guilt, however, she did claim that the air bag deployment prevented her from stopping immediately. If so, a jury could reject the argument that her actions evidenced a guilty conscience.
However, the prosecution in the criminal proceeding need not prove that the pickup driver was the cause of the accident to get a conviction. The evidence might be enough to support convictions for DUI, leaving the scene of an injury accident, possessing a Class B drug, violation of the open container law, and other possible offenses. In other words, she can be convicted of multiple criminal offenses without a finding that she caused the accident.
But in order to sustain a civil claim for damages by the injured motorcycle rider, he must prove that the pickup driver was at least 50% at fault before he can collect any compensation. Given the circumstances of this accident where liability is not apparent, the lack of definitive proof of intoxication and impairment, and the severity of the injuries, you can be assured that the pickup driver’s auto insurer will challenge liability should the motorcycle rider make an injury claim.
What a Massachusetts Motor Vehicle Accident Attorney Can Do
Should the motorcycle accident victim in this case wait to see if the pickup driver is convicted of DUI and/or fleeing the scene of an injury accident before proceeding with a civil claim? Criminal cases can take months, especially one where there are felony charges. Although a civil claimant has 3-years to file a claim, evidence can be lost after just a few weeks that can seriously affect the motorcycle rider’s civil claim.
In any serious injury claim, a knowledgeable and seasoned personal injury lawyer is essential. Where liability is contested, your attorney may retain an accident reconstruction expert who can investigate the circumstances of the accident and opine as to who was at fault by visiting the scene, talking at least to the motorcycle driver in this case, reviewing the police report, and inspecting the damage to both vehicles. A motor vehicle accident attorney might also check to see if footage of the accident exists, especially if there were any businesses at or near the accident site or on overhead cables or poles.
The arresting officers at the scene can be deposed in a civil case as can the defendant. Of course, the defendant can cite the 5th Amendment in refusing to answer questions that may incriminate her. She can also plead no contest in the criminal case. Although such a plea is a conviction, it cannot be used as evidence of guilt in a civil case. But unlike a criminal trial where a jury cannot infer guilt by the defendant’s use of the 5th Amendment’s bar against self-incrimination, a jury is not prohibited in a civil case from making adverse inferences if the defendant refuses to testify on probative evidence against her. These issues are complex and can be the subject of complicated motions regarding the right of defendants to not incriminate themselves versus the rights of injured plaintiffs to question and receive appropriate responses from those defendants who may have caused them permanent injury.
Further, a resourceful motor vehicle accident attorney can also subpoena receipts from the club where the pickup truck driver was drinking and interview people at the club who may have observed her drinking. If she had had 3 beers over a short period of time, an expert retained by the personal injury lawyer can also calculate as to what her likely blood alcohol concentration level (BAC) was in order to put her over 0.08%, the level where impairment is legally presumed. She may also have drunk more than the 3 beers she admitted to. This issue might even be resolved at the defendant’s DUI trial if she does not plead out before then.
The standard of proof in a civil case is much less than in a criminal proceeding. In a personal injury case, proof must be by a preponderance of the evidence, or that it is more likely than not that the defendant drove negligently and caused the accident. By showing that the defendant admitted to drinking 3 beers, that she was observed to be unsteady on her feet or was slurring her speech, that she had numerous open containers of alcohol in her vehicle, the injured victim’s testimony denying his own fault, and that the property damage and other circumstances of the accident suggest fault on her part, a jury could find that she was more likely than not impaired while driving and was responsible for the accident.
If the club where the driver was drinking had served her while she was obviously intoxicated, it may also be held liable under our state’s dram shop laws, though the evidence there may not so compelling.
Damages in a Personal Injury Claim
Another key element of any personal injury claim is damages. An experienced personal injury lawyer will obtain medical records, expenses, medical reports from the treating physician and specialists, employment and possibly school records if the victim is a student, and reports from other experts in economics, rehabilitation, and employment prospects if the injured rider was permanently injured, so as to maximize damages.
Damages in a personal injury case may include:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Past and future income loss
- Emotional distress
- Diminished quality of life
- Scarring and disfigurement
- Pain and suffering
- Spousal claim for loss of consortium
Retain a Motor Vehicle Accident Attorney from Burns and Jain
A skilled car accident attorney is always essential if you want the most compensation for your injury claim. By retaining one of our attorneys from the law firm of Burns and Jain, you can be assured that your claim will be vigorously pursued and that all avenues of compensation examined. Call us at (617) 286-3594 for a free, in-depth discussion of your car accident injury.