Can You Sue A Drunk Driver?

A person holding a bottle of beer as they approach their car door to drive drunk.

Motor vehicle fatalities involving drunk drivers claim the lives of 37 victims every day nationwide. In Colorado, there were 271 impaired driving fatalities in 2022, up from the 255 deaths in 2021. Thousands more are injured throughout Colorado and the nation every year. If you or a loved one have been injured by the actions of a drunk driver, you have legal rights and options. 
At the law office of Bachus & Schanker, our personal injury attorneys will offer the legal expertise you need after an accident with a drunk driver. Contact us to schedule a free consultation on your case.

Colorado’s DUI laws

It is against the law to drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a crime commonly referred to as a DUI. It’s also illegal for a driver to operate a vehicle while they are impaired by drugs or alcohol, commonly known as a DWAI. A DWAI is a lesser charge than a DUI.

What is the legal limit in Colorado?

Colorado law recognizes both buzzed and impaired driving. Under Colorado law, a DUI can be issued if a driver’s blood alcohol content is 0.08 or higher. If a driver’s blood alcohol content is higher than 0.05 but less than 0.08, and the driver shows visible signs of impairment or an inability to operate a vehicle (buzzed driving), they could still be charged with a DUI. If a driver has a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher, has additional alcohol-related violations, and has been penalized before, they could be classified as a persistent drunk driver, a charge with greater penalties than a first-offense DUI. 

Sobriety field tests, blood tests, and breath tests play a critical role in officers enforcing Colorado’s DUI laws. 

What are dram shop laws?

Colorado’s dram shop law is outlined in state statute 44-3-801(3). Under this law, a vendor who is licensed to sell alcohol and does so can be held liable for any injuries caused by one of their patrons. 

Dram shop laws typically apply to restaurants, bars, and any other establishments that sell alcoholic beverages, but ultimately, any vendor who sells alcohol can be held liable. These laws are designed to hold establishments that sell liquor responsible if they continue selling liquor to someone who is physically intoxicated. 

Drunk driving could be negligence or negligence per se

Drunk driving in Colorado can fall under the category of negligence or negligence per se. 

Negligence per se in Colorado happens when a person violates a safety law, a regulation, or an ordinance. To prove negligence per se, a victim must show that a defendant violated the safety law or regulation. They must also prove the following: 

  • The safety law or regulation was created to keep others from suffering the same injury as a victim
  • The victim is part of a “class,” meaning they belong to a group of people protected by the safety law or regulation
  • The injuries a victim sustains were because of a defendant’s violation of the safety law or regulation in question

Unlike negligence per se, negligence relies on the duty a driver has and whether they violated that duty. If a drunk driving accident lawsuit is arguing negligence, then four elements need to be present in order for the lawsuit to be successful:

  • The person being sued (the defendant) owed a duty of care to the person who was injured. As with all states, Colorado residents have a duty to drive in a reasonable manner so that other motorists and pedestrians can remain safe.
  • The defendant violated their duty of care
  • A person’s injuries were the result of a defendant breaching their duty of care
  • A victim sustained damages such as financial losses because of their injuries

Criminal penalties vs. civil penalties

Criminal law allows the government to issue penalties against individuals who have violated the law. Criminal cases can be brought forward in one of three ways: 

  • An injunction voted on by a grand jury
  • By a prosecuting attorney such as the county, district, or state’s attorney
  • Through a citation issued by a law enforcement officer 

Criminal penalties

When criminal charges are brought against an individual, the type of charge brought forward will determine what happens next. Generally, however, criminal charges can result in either a fine, jail time or a combination of both. There may be additional penalties, such as community service and probation. 

Colorado law also has sentencing and penalty guidelines based on the type of crime committed. When it comes to DUI-related crimes in Colorado, the kind of DUI it is and the number of offenses determine fines and jail time penalties. Generally, DUIs are classified as misdemeanors in Colorado, and the more convictions an individual has, the more severe the penalties.

First offense

  • 5 days to 1 year in jail 
  • $600 to $1,000 fine
  • 12 DMV points added to driving record
  • Driver’s license revocation period of 9 months
  • Drivers must also complete 48 to 96 hours of community service
  • If a driver’s blood alcohol level is 20% or higher, serving jail time is mandatory 

Second offense

  • 10 days to 1 year in jail
  • $600 to $1,500 fine
  • 12 DMV points added to driving record
  • Driver’s license will be suspended for up to one year
  • Alcohol education class 
  • 48 to 120 hours of public service
  • An ignition interlock device will be installed on their vehicle for two years once their license is reinstated

Third offense

  • A third offense brings with it all the penalties of a second DUI, including a suspended driver’s license for up to 2 years and 90 days of continuous alcohol monitoring if permission is granted.

Civil penalties

Civil law allows victims to recover monetary damages from individuals who have caused them injury. Under civil law, the victim, known as a plaintiff, can bring forward their case by filing a lawsuit against the defendant after a drunk driving accident. 

If you were hit by a drunk driver, you could bring forward a civil lawsuit if you have suffered injuries, sustained financial losses and property loss, or are the family of someone who was killed because of someone else’s negligence.

Accidents causing property damage

If you’ve been involved in a car accident and your car was totaled or suffered other property damage, you can file a lawsuit to hold the other motorists accountable for your property laws. 

As with all types of criminal cases, Colorado has strict deadlines for bringing a claim forward. Under Colorado Revised Statutes section 13-80-101, The statute of limitations for property loss following a motor vehicle accident is 3 years. 

Accident causing personal injury

Victims who have suffered a personal injury because of someone else’s negligence can bring forward a personal injury lawsuit to recover financial losses, including medical bills, treatment costs, loss of income, and other damages. 

A personal injury is a general umbrella term that describes an injury caused by someone else’s negligence. If you’ve been involved in a motor vehicle accident because of another driver’s recklessness, you could hold them accountable for their actions. 

Generally, Colorado residents have 2 years to file a personal injury lawsuit against an at-fault party. If the personal injury resulted from a motor vehicle accident, this statute of limitations is extended to 3 years.

Accident resulting in wrongful death

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, one out of every three traffic deaths in the state is caused by an impaired driver. While criminal and civil law are in place to protect victims, every year, thousands needlessly lose their lives because of the actions of an impaired driver. 

Colorado recognizes this and allows the families of victims killed by drunk drivers the right to file wrongful death lawsuits against liable parties. The family member who wishes to file a wrongful death lawsuit has 2 years from the date of the wrongful death to file their claim.

Statute of limitations for civil lawsuits

Civil lawsuits have statutes of limitations in order to encourage convictions against the right parties and discourage convictions that may be based on false or inaccurate evidence from unreliable witness testimony or false memories. Additionally, the sooner an individual takes legal action via a civil lawsuit, the sooner a plaintiff’s legal team will have access to critical evidence that can prove their client. Over time, this critical evidence can get lost, become construed, or no longer be accessible.

Does the driver have to be convicted criminally of DUI?

Only criminal courts can bring forward DUI charges. Because civil and criminal courts are two separate branches of government, a criminal charge of DUI is not necessary in order to file a civil lawsuit. However, evidence that the defendant is charged with a DUI can help prove negligence claims.

Who can be held civilly liable for a drunk driving accident? 

When filing a civil lawsuit involving a drunk-driving motor vehicle accident, there are several defendants that a plaintiff can go after. First and foremost, a plaintiff can go after the driver of the vehicle for their negligence or negligence per se.

The owner of the car

If the driver and the owner of the vehicle are two different people, you may be able to go after the owner of the vehicle as well. Negligent entrustment is cause for liability in Colorado. 

Colorado vehicle owners are responsible for their vehicles, no matter who is driving. Under negligent entrustment, the vehicle owner could be held responsible if they knowingly allow an inexperienced or dangerous driver to operate their vehicle.  

The establishment that served alcohol

Under Colorado’s dram shop laws, the establishment or vendor that served alcohol to an individual who would later be involved in a drunk driving accident can be held liable. 

Let Bachus & Schanker help you get your life back

A gavel on a personal injury attorney's desk.

When you work with a drunk driving accident attorney at Bachus & Schanker, you can recover the compensation you deserve for any medical bills, treatment costs, property loss, and other damages you’ve sustained. Our team is here to offer the legal representation you deserve. Contact us today to schedule your free case consultation to learn more.


Colorado Drunk Driving Laws. (2023).  

C.R.S. 13-80-101. (2023). 

C.R.S. 44-3-801. (2023). 

How alcohol affects driving ability. (2023). 

Impaired Driving. (2023). 

Mathews, Z. (2023). Colorado’s Attempt To Reduce Drunk Driving Fatalities

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