The Difference Between “Legal Limit” and “Under the Influence”

The most obvious advice in the world is: don’t drink and drive.

But if you’re tangled up in an auto accident lawsuit, advice gets trickier. If drinking was involved, that’s most likely going to have an effect on your case. How it changes your odds of succeeding in your case depend on whether you were the one drinking.

And you need to know this going in.

So here’s some less obvious advice that many people have never heard: get rid of that preconceived notion that staying under the legal blood alcohol limit affords you any sort of safety.

Understanding the Language

When it comes to auto accident injury claims and DUI cases, there is a critical difference between how the “legal limit” is defined and what constitutes “under the influence.”

To be perfectly clear: drinking and driving is illegal. Period.

Nearly 39 people in this country die every day from alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes, translating to one person every 50 minutes in 2016 alone, according to the NHTSA. While drunk-driving fatalities have decreased by one third in the last three decades, DUI-related crashes still claim more than 10,000 lives per year.

You can be slapped with a DUI charge in a civil or criminal case EVEN IF your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is lower than the limit imposed by law.

Understanding BAC

BAC represents the percentage of alcohol in your blood. For example, a BAC of .10 means that .1% of your bloodstream is comprised of alcohol. In most states, including California, the legal intoxication level is .080.

California’s DUI laws extend beyond the 0.08% or higher for those 21 years old or older operating a regular passenger vehicle to include restrictions of 0.04% or higher for those operating a commercial vehicle and 0.01% or higher for those younger than 21, according to

Take note of that last requirement. If you are under the age of 21, you should be doubly aware of getting behind the wheel while intoxicated because the laws are much stricter for young people. Such “zero tolerance” laws make it illegal to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in your system, according to the CDC. In these cases, the .08 BAC legal limit would not apply to you. In fact, you would be under much stricter scrutiny.

Deciphering the Difference: Subjective vs. Objective

Driving under the influence is UNLAWFUL, but it doesn’t actually affect LIABILITY. “Driving under the influence” and “driving above the legal limit” are subjective vs. objective.

Care needs to be taken when deciphering between “under the influence” and “the legal limit,” as one is a subjective judgment and the other is an indisputable number. Many states have passed some kind of absolute fault standard. The BAC level is a different standard.

Let’s take a look at some examples for a clearer picture:

Example A

A police officer pulls you over because you exhibited signs of intoxication. You are placed under arrest and when they administer the blood alcohol test, you register a blood alcohol level of 0.7. As noted above, if you are over the age of 21, this is less than the legal limit.

You could be thinking to yourself: OK, great, I’m going to be able to go home and all this will be behind me.

Don’t be fooled.

You can still be charged with DUI and made to pay fines. If your level is .08 or above (over the legal limit), you may face additional fines because of the statute. Statutory fine is a different fine to pay, but statute doesn’t affect liability in a civil case.

The actual number on record may affect the lawsuit, but it’s not that a certain number creates a legally pre-determined outcome in a lawsuit, says Robert Ryan of Kuzyk Law in Lancaster, CA, a firm that specializes in auto accident injury claims.

Example B

A pedestrian jay walking at night on a dark road is struck by a vehicle. The police officer originally declared that the accident was the fault of the jay-walker rather than the driver of the vehicle.

Later, it was revealed that the motorist had a .04 BAC level.

This changes the nature of the lawsuit because now it has come to law enforcement’s attention that the driver may have been operating a vehicle with impaired judgment, leading to slower reaction times.

In this case, it doesn’t matter that he was under the legal limit of .08; he may still be liable in this situation and thus, the case against him gains strength.

Essentially, the view is this: a person can be impaired and a dramatically poorer driver displaying outwardly drunk behaviors with just a BAC of .04 if they have a lower tolerance for alcohol. Similarly, someone with a very high tolerance may register more than .08 BAC but not exhibit a single outward sign of drunkenness. It varies from person to person, which is why this slippery slope is so confusing for so many.

Punitive Damages for DUI?

Punitive damages are only applicable in purposefully malicious conduct. For example: a driver of a bus falls asleep at the wheel and drives off a bridge, killing several passengers on board. While this constitutes negligent behavior with disastrous consequences, the driver did not do so with malicious intent. Therefore, no punitive damages can be levied at the driver.

Malicious intent would be if the driver intended to drive that bus off the bridge for the purpose of causing harm.

A few states allow punitive damages for negligent conduct if the motorist at fault had alcohol in his or her system. For example, if that same bus driver fell asleep behind the wheel of the bus because he or she had consumed alcohol, this would be a different story, and in a case like this, the legal limit doesn’t have any bearing one way or the other.

Just Don’t Drink and Drive

It’s not too hard, relatively speaking, to obtain your own breathalyzer. There are even smartphone apps that supposedly can tell you your current BAC.

But don’t be fooled – your BAC is irrelevant. If it’s over zero, you can still wind up in a heap of trouble for yourself, and you could hurt or kill someone else.  If there is any doubt, just grab an Uber.

The obvious advice is still the truest: don’t drink and drive.

 BIO: Written by Robert Ryan of Kuzyk Law in Lancaster, CA. Kuzyk Law is the most respected personal injury law firm in the Antelope Valley, with more personal injury referrals from satisfied residents than any other firm and over $1 billion won in settlements and court victories since 1971.

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