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Is a Designated Driver Liable for a Drunk Passenger Who Falls Off of the Car?


One of the best ways to avoid an alcohol-related car accident is to have a designated driver. Making sure there is at least one sober, responsible person in your social group can help ensure that everyone gets home safely. But what happens when a drunk passenger is injured during that ride home? Can the designated driver be held responsible in a subsequent personal injury claim?

Federal Court Rejects North Dakota Accident Victim’s Insurance Claim

In this context, we are not necessarily talking about a car accident. After all, a driver is always responsible for the safe operation of their vehicle regardless of the state of their passengers. Rather, the question is whether the designated driver assumes a special duty to ensure the drunken passenger does not injure him or herself during the ride home.

For example, a federal appeals court recently addressed this issue in a case from North Dakota. The plaintiff had spent the evening at a social gathering with friends, where she became intoxicated. A designated driver took the group home. The plaintiff, still inebriated, decided to ride on the car’s trunk. The designated driver tried to stop her, but eventually relented and proceeded to drive away slowly, keeping a constant eye on her friends “through the rearview mirror,” according to court records. Meanwhile, another drunk passenger in the front seat pushed down on the designated driver’s leg, causing her to hit the accelerator and throwing the plaintiff off the trunk.

The plaintiff, who was seriously injured in the fall, later sought insurance benefits under her father’s uninsured motorist coverage. The trial court agreed with the plaintiff that the designated driver had a “heightened duty” as the designated driver to exercise care for her drunken passengers’ safety. But the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding no such duty exists under North Dakota law.

The Eighth Circuit pointed to a 2008 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court in support of this position. In that case, the Tennessee court said that to “hold a driver liable for the irresponsible actions of an intoxicated passenger would cut against this important social policy of encouraging the use of designated drivers.” Courts in Vermont and Louisiana have also made similar holdings.

Did the Driver Create an “Unreasonable” Risk of Harm?

The Eighth Circuit somewhat oversimplified what the Tennessee Supreme Court said. In the Tennessee case, which was a wrongful death lawsuit, the intoxicated victim became ill while riding in a truck operated by a designated driver. After a brief stop, the trip resumed with the victim sitting in the bed of the truck. The victim then apparently exited the truck while it was still moving, whereupon he was struck and killed by two other vehicles.

The Supreme Court said the defendants–the designated driver and other passengers in the truck–could be liable if there was evidence that they “placed the decedent in the bed of the truck,” thereby creating a “foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm.” Similarly, if the evidence showed the victim was “helpless” and the defendants “took charge of” him, that could be sufficient to establish liability. However, the designated driver did not assume a special duty “to aid or protect intoxicated passengers” merely because he agreed to drive the group home.

If you have been hurt in any kind of car accident, regardless of the underlying circumstances, it is important to seek advice from a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer who can review your case and inform you of your options. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, at (866) 862-4855 if you need to speak to a car accident lawyer today.


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