How to Protect Your Rights After a Drunk Driving Accident

While the rates of drunk driving-related car wrecks have declined in Virginia over the past two decades, annual spikes in accidents still occur around the holidays, and even the most careful motorists can fall victim to a drunk driver. As the holiday season approaches, it’s especially important to understand the steps you can take to protect yourself if you suffer injuries in a drunk driving crash.

Drunk Driving Remains a Serious Problem in Virginia

By law, a driver is considered alcohol-impaired if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is 0.08% or higher. Data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles shows that drunk drivers cause 29% of our state’s fatal car crashes. Meanwhile, statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that between 2003 and 2012, 2,613 Virginia residents died in drunk driving wrecks.

Know the Difference Between a Civil Suit and Criminal Proceedings

Many victims of drunk driving wrecks don’t understand the difference between their civil and criminal cases. Criminal proceedings exist to punish the offender and protect the public. While a criminal case can give you peace of mind and hold a drunk driver accountable for their actions, it won’t provide you any sort of financial compensation to address your injuries and losses.

Civil suits are separate cases entirely, and with the exception of punitive damages, the purpose of these cases is to determine and assign compensatory damages, which are sums of money intended to address the victim’s specific losses and injuries. A civil case can ensure that you receive financial compensation for the medical bills you’ve incurred, the wages you’ve lost, the permanent injuries you’ve suffered and the pain and suffering you’ve endured, but it won’t send the drunk driver who injured you to jail.

If you’ve been injured by a drunk driver, the prosecutor for the criminal case may come to you for information or evidence, but his or her job is to see that the person responsible is fairly punished and the public is protected. Prosecutors aren’t there to make sure you have the resources and help you need to recover. That’s why an experienced personal injury lawyer is essential if you want to recover financial compensation after a drunk driving crash.

Does Virginia Law Allow for Dram Shop Liability?

Some states allow victims to file suit against restaurants, bars, and other establishments when they overserve alcohol to patrons and contribute to drunk driving wrecks. The laws that establish the rules for these types of cases are called dram shop laws.

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Virginia has no dram shop laws, which means you can’t file suit against the bar or restaurant that served the drunk driver who injured you, no matter how much their negligent actions played a role in causing the wreck.

Contributory Negligence Sets Harsh and Unfair Standards for Victims

Virginia law is unfair to drunk driving victims in another important way. Our state uses a harsh rule for personal injury cases called contributory negligence. This rule says that if you are even partially responsible for the crash that injured you, you won’t be allowed to receive any kind of financial compensation.

Because of this rule, successfully handling a personal injury lawsuit in Virginia involves not only proving that the other driver’s drunkenness caused the crash and inflicted your injuries but also establishing that you were not a proximate cause of the wreck. Of course, you can expect the attorneys for the other side to try and find any evidence or arguments they can use to blame the wreck on you. That’s why it’s especially important for Virginia drunk driving victims to work with an experienced lawyer who can anticipate these tactics and refute them with thorough investigation and an effective strategy.

RELATED BLOG ARTICLE: The Deadly Consequences of Distracted Driving

Keep an Eye on the Timeline After a Drunk Driving Wreck

The statute of limitations is the amount of time the law gives you to file a lawsuit after a wreck, and this short window begins to expire the moment you suffer your injuries. Once the statute of limitations expires, you’ll lose any chance to file a personal injury claim and receive compensation for the losses you’ve suffered.

The statute of limitations in Virginia for personal injury and wrongful death cases is two years. While this might sound like a long time, investigating a personal injury case, building a sound strategy, and creating all the necessary documentation to file a lawsuit takes a significant amount of time. If you start calling lawyers a few weeks before the statute of limitations expires, don’t expect to find one who will take your case. No good personal injury attorney will file a lawsuit without taking the proper steps first, which means you need to give them enough time to do so if you want your case to succeed.

To Build a Successful Claim, Evidence Is Key

If you want to build a successful personal injury case, you need evidence and documentation. This means you must cooperate with the police and with your attorney whenever possible. And if you’re injured, go to the doctor and follow their instructions to the letter, which includes attending any follow-up appointments and pursuing any additional treatment they recommend. Records from health care professionals, first responders, and even mental health providers are not just helpful but critical to any personal injury or wrongful death claim.

You can use the evidence from criminal proceedings to support your civil case, but be careful: Criminal cases can take a long time to resolve, especially if the driver who injured you appeals the case. If the criminal proceedings result in a conviction, that conviction is admissible as evidence in the corresponding civil claim. Just make sure you’ve got an experienced injury lawyer by your side and that you’re prepared to move forward regardless of what happens in the criminal case if you want to build a successful personal injury claim.

Phelan Petty: Fighting for Justice on Behalf of Drunk Driving Victims in Virginia

Phelan Petty’s experienced personal injury team focuses on handling a small number of complex cases so we can help the clients who need our experience and expertise the most. If you or a loved one recently suffered an injury in Virginia due to drunk driving or any other type of negligent behavior, contact us online or call us at 804-980-7100 to schedule your free consultation. We’ll assess your situation and discuss your legal options at no cost to you, and if we’re able to handle your case, you won’t pay attorney’s fees unless we help you recover financial compensation through a verdict or settlement.


State-based motor vehicle data and information. (2017, September 21). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. (2017, August 23). Virginia alcohol-related motor vehicle statistics (calendar years 1991-2016) (TSS-02). Richmond, VA: Author. Retrieved from

Virginia Highway Safety Office. (2017). 2017 Virginia traffic crash facts. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Retrieved from

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.