As 4th of July approaches, it is good to be reminded about the dangers of drinking and driving. We all know that drinking and driving is stupid. Besides getting busted by Johnny Law, you also risk having a car accident and getting stuck with all those medical bills yourself. You can’t sue for personal injury in Maryland if you are drunk driving when your accident happened.
Did you know the same risks apply to passengers of drunk drivers? For the exact same reasons, you could be prevented from making a personal injury claim – even if you never had a drink yourself. This will give you one more reason not to get into the car with a driver who has been drinking.
Maryland follows the law of “contributory negligence” and “assumption of the risk” in personal injury cases. Both of these are defenses to a personal injury claim. In “contrib” cases, the defendant will claim you were partly negligent yourself and partly caused the accident. If the judge or jury agrees, you lose the right to make a claim. In “assumption” cases, the defendant claims you “assumed the risk” of the accident by knowingly and voluntarily exposing yourself to the danger.
Getting in the car with a drunk driver will raise both contributory negligence and assumption of the risk defenses. The case will be decided on whether you knew, or should have known, that the driver was impaired. If you had no idea, then you will not lose your right to sue for your damages. But if you did know something was up, you can expect the defense to be aggressive with this claim. Ultimately, it will be a question of fact for the jury or judge.
I have turned down a few cases where the passenger was drinking with the driver before an accident. Even if the passenger thinks the driver is fine to drive, most juries won’t agree if it seems unreasonable to make that assumption (like if the two of you had been drinking all night). I did take a case to trial once where a 15 year old boy got injured by his friend who was also drunk. I felt it was worth taking a shot at going to trial, since he was only 15. But the jury did not find in his favor despite his age.
Conclusion & Next Steps
Juries are usually harsh on drinking and driving, and that includes passengers who get in the car with an impaired driver. Contributory negligence may bar your entire claim, even if you are just the passenger.
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