If you ride with an intoxicated driver who causes an auto accident, you may wonder if you can even qualify for a settlement.

You can, but you do face challenges. Here’s how we overcame them to get a solid settlement for a young man who rode with the wrong guy at a party.

Lee was just 23. He came to me after suffering a broken neck while riding with a drunk driver after a party. His father, who I’d represented in a car crash case a few years back, brought him to see me. They were concerned they’d never get a fair shake from the insurance company. Lee had been hurt seriously, and they were wise to know they needed a professional to protect his rights, because he had a lot at stake. And they were also angry that  he was the victim of a drunk driver.

The crash. On September 9, 2017 around 9:45 p.m., Lee rode with the driver from a party on a quick trip to the store. The drunk driver caused an accident near Lyman when he ran off the right side of the road, slamming into a ditch and culvert. The crash report showed he was driving 10 miles over the speed limit at 45 miles an hour. Both airbags deployed.

Legal challenges to overcome. In most cases, DUI car accident victims are other motorists with the misfortune of sharing the road with an intoxicated driver. But Lee wasn’t your typical DUI victim because he had gotten in the car with that driver. Worse, some evidence suggested that Lee was intoxicated at the scene. I knew we had to overcome that to give him a chance at a good settlement. Here’s how I did it:

  • I pointed out there was absolutely no evidence that Lee did anything to contribute to the car running off the road at 45 miles per hour. The driver had sole control over that.
  • The evidence of Lee’s intoxication was slight compared to the overwhelming evidence compiled by the investigating trooper that the driver drove drunk. More on that in a minute.

Lee’s injuries. While Lee refused an ambulance at the scene, he had no idea how badly he was hurt. Agony set in about 20 minutes later. He got his mother to take him to the hospital. There, doctors failed to diagnose him. Later that night, he awoke with terrifyingly sharp neck pain. Just days later, he luckily got an appointment with a neurosurgeon, who diagnosed him with a broken neck at his C7 cervical spinal vertebra.

A medical challenge. Unfortunately, there was little medical science could do to help Lee. He didn’t need surgery, just time for the bone to heal itself. That meant his medical bills weren’t that high, which often keeps down the value of a settlement.

But the value of Lee’s case was the severity of the injury—we wouldn’t let anyone forget it was a broken neck—plus the potential punitive damages for the DUI driver causing the crash.

Still, I made sure to point out that one of the bigger parts of Lee’s case was the fact that modern medical science could do so little to help him. For months, he endured crushing, grinding pain in his neck. He also wore a C collar, which is embarrassing for anyone, but especially for a 23-year-old young man who’s naturally self-conscious. We used his self-consciousness, which he was forced to endure for three months of his life while he wore that C collar, as an element of the harm the driver caused. I even sent a picture of Lee in the collar to the insurance company so they’d be sure to get a full sense of what Lee looked like every day in public.

I also painstakingly pointed out all the things he couldn’t do as a result of his broken neck, especially the most basic daily activities. It hurt to do just about everything, making normal daily tasks monumental achievements. He lost one of the joys of his life for a few months—running. It made him depressed. Overall, he felt he’d lost his life.

While Lee improved, I pointed out that he was still left with a sore neck that aches like that of an old man if it’s just cold or rainy outside. And this once proud 6-mile runner could now barely run a single mile.

Punitive damages. Insurance companies despise punitive damages. It’s almost always impossible to get them to even consider them for settlement. After gathering evidence from the criminal case against the driver, I presented it to the insurance company to let them know they had no real choice here. In submitting the investigative report, I noted for the adjuster just how bad this case was.

The driver flunked field sobriety tests, even when the trooper gave him a second chance to take them.

When he took his breath test, the trooper described him as “defiant,” refusing to leave the test room despite several requests. The driver even had enough liquid courage left in him to challenge the trooper to take the breath test. He accused the trooper of drinking when the trooper declined to take the test himself, telling the trooper the test was “rigged.”

The end result. Lee and his father remained extremely concerned he’d get a lowball offer because he was a passenger instead of a totally innocent DUI victim. But because of the evidence we were able to generate, those fears soon subsided. While Lee had less than $10,000 in medical bills, we were ultimately able to reach a settlement of $150,000.  Both father and son felt convinced this was a good result, and I couldn’t agree more.

I’m thrilled for them that we were able to help them get past a terrible accident that presented some real legal challenges, plus get all the medical bills paid and get fully compensated for the driver betraying Lee’s trust.

And I admit my proudest moment in the case came when Lee said, “If I could go back, I would do some things differently, but the one thing I wouldn’t change is hiring you.”


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.