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Can you be held legally responsible for a traffic death when you weren’t driving?

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, during 2013 alone, more than 10,000 people were killed and 290,000 injured in drunk driving-related traffic accidents. By now, everyone is well aware of the dangers associated with drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, however, despite this knowledge, during 2012 alone more than 29 million people in the U.S. confessed to driving while “under the influence of alcohol.”

In cases where an individual is injured or killed in a traffic accident caused by a drunk driving, it’s wise to consult with an attorney. Drivers who drink and drive may not only be subject to criminal charges, but also civil charges which could result in the award of damages to a plaintiff.

While both criminal and civil cases that are filed against individuals accused of drunk driving typically center on violations and offenses committed while behind the wheel of a vehicle, a unique case out of New York is being closely watched by both prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout the U.S.

After a night spent drinking at a New York City bar, a man named James Ryan was driving home when he was involved in two minor collisions, after which his vehicle “stopped farther down the road in the high-occupancy lane.” When his vehicle came to a stop, Ryan exited the vehicle and was standing next to a nearby guardrail when a police officer responded to the accident. As the police officer was investigating the accident scene, a driver in a SUV crashed into Ryan’s vehicle and also hit the police officer who died as a result of his injuries. After the accident, Ryan registered a 0.13 blood alcohol content level, which means he was legally drunk.

Under a legal principle known as “causation/foreseeability,” prosecutors in the case argued that Ryan was responsible for causing the officer’s death as he should have been able to foresee the possible results of his actions. Meanwhile the driver of the SUV who actually hit the police officer was “not charged and has been given immunity from the prosecution for his testimony.”

This case is unique in that Ryan wasn’t driving the vehicle that hit the police officer nor was he behind the wheel of any vehicle when the accident occurred. If convicted, the outcome of this case could have significant and far-reaching implications in similar criminal and civil drunk driving cases.

Source: CBS New York, “Driver Charged In Nassau County Cop’s Death Faces Case That Tests Limits Of Criminal Blame,” Jan. 19, 2016

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