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Who is Liable When Underage Drinkers Cause Deadly Car Accidents?

Feb 2, 2016 - Car Accidents by

No one needs to consult with a Charlotte car accident lawyer to realize that any drunk driver who injures or kills someone is liable for those actions — both criminally and civilly. The real question pertains to whether other parties might share civil liability.

That answer typically requires the skills of a lawyer who has the ability to obtain information on the specifics of a given situation, combined with in-depth understanding of the North Carolina statutes that apply to an alcohol provider’s responsibilities for their customers’ actions, known as dram shop laws.

In July 2015, a WRAL TV report described a potentially-complex legal issue. Using a borrowed ID card, a 20-year old college student visited two NC bars. Then he got into his car and proceeded to cause a wrong-way accident that killed three adults and seriously injured a child.

The student was immediately charged on numerous felony counts and a grand jury indicted him in September. While his trial has not yet occurred, the evidence makes it seem likely that he will be convicted for some or all charges against him.

Civil Liability Can Extend Beyond NC Drunk Drivers in Some Cases

A family member of one of the accident victims filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the student shortly after the accident. However, a month later, she added both bars to the suit. While NC law does not always hold sellers accountable when adult customers drink and drive, they can be found liable when they serve alcohol to intoxicated individuals. When the driver is a minor, however, Article 1A of the NC statutes states that liability can fall to the seller that meets all of the following requirements:

  • The seller negligently sold alcohol to an underage person.
  • Consumption of that alcohol essentially contributed to the underage person’s intoxication.
  • An injury was caused because the underage person operated a vehicle while impaired.

It is clear that the underage drunk driver caused the accident, and it is certainly likely that intoxication caused him to make bad decisions behind the wheel. However, the first point may be in question since the plaintiff needs to prove that the sellers were negligent.

On the one hand, if the borrowed ID provided convincing evidence that the student was legally allowed to drink, the sellers may not have been negligent when selling the drinks. On the other hand, if the student appeared intoxicated at either or both establishments, then they would be negligent to serve more drinks and thus civilly liable for the accident.

Every Detail Matters in Cases Involving Dram Shop Laws

Without hearing all the facts of the case, it is impossible to predict how this wrongful death case will turn out. One thing that is clear, however, is that families dealing with the needless death of their loved ones should not need to occupy themselves with extensive legal details while they are working through their grief.

When a car accident causes severe injuries or fatalities, families should turn to support from an attorney with the knowledge, experience and compassion needed to take on the legal details. Call us at 844-452-3688 or use our convenient online contact form to learn how we can help.