Riding with Drunks
There are a lot of public awareness campaigns on driving while intoxicated, but less emphasis has been placed on riding with an intoxicated individual. Aside from the physical danger, the choice to ride with an obvious drunk can have serious effects on any potential lawsuit the passenger may have.
North Carolina still retains the old common law rule of contributory negligence. Essentially, this means that if the person bringing a claim for their injuries (the plaintiff) is in any way or on any level partially responsible, they can’t recover for any of their injuries. Normally, the passenger in a car is in no danger of contributory negligence, since they have no control over the actual driving. However, there are some fact patterns that would bar a passenger, including riding with an intoxicated driver. This is because a jury could easily find that a reasonable person, taking ordinary care of themselves, would not run the risk of riding with someone who was drunk.
The first key issue with contributory negligence and riding with a drunk driver is not whether or not the driver was intoxicated, but rather did the passenger know the driver was drunk, or would a reasonable person have known he was drunk, before the passenger got in the car. This would therefore depend on the facts of each particular situation. Did the passenger see the driver drinking? How many? For how long? Was the driver slurring their words? Unsteady on their feet?
Once the passenger gets in the car, and then realizes that the driver is impaired, did the passenger ask the driver to stop? Slow down? At least one case in North Carolina found a passenger to be contributory negligence where she did not know the driver was intoxicated when she first got in the car, but knew or should have known during the drive. At this point, she would not be found to be contributorily negligent. However, the driver stopped at a store and the passenger got out of the vehicle and then back in. Because she got back in with the intoxicated driver, her injuries incurred when the driver later wrecked the car, were not recoverable.
The other key with contributory negligence is that the negligence has to have actually contributed to the injury. So, even if the driver is intoxicated and the passenger knows it, if the driver and passenger are stopped at a red light and rear-ended by a negligent driver, the negligence of the passenger (and the driver) did not “contribute” to the wreck and subsequent injury.
 Contributory Negligence is the minority position in the United States. Most states allow for some form of Comparative Negligence, where a Plaintiff can recover against a Defendant for the percentage the Defendant was at fault.
-Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who practices in Personal Injury, Car Accidents, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes, and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.