Should A Jury Be Told That a Driver Was Drunk?

DUI civil damages in NebraskaImagine you’ve been hit by a car, and your life has been changed forever. Surgery, pain, emotional trauma, financial devastation. It’s happened often enough, and the civil court system exists to help you get some compensation for all that suffering. So you sue.

But imagine the jury can’t be told that the driver was drunk at the time of the crash. Would the DUI civil damages settlement reflect the reality of the driver’s wrongdoing?

In Nebraska, it happens that way. Under present law, if the driver admits he or she was negligent or at fault, the jury cannot be told that he or she was driving drunk. The reason for the law is a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that bars DUI evidence in civil trials. Nebraska does not allow punitive damages, and defendants may not be held liable for more than loss of income and other costs that the victim incurred as a result of the crash.

It seems obvious to victims that DUI civil damages settlements would be larger if the jury had the vital missing fact that a driver was intoxicated, and a Nebraska legislator agrees. State Senator Carol Blood has introduced Nebraska LB 84, a bill which, if passed, would allow juries to be told if a driver being sued for damages was drunk.

Victims have spoken in favor of the bill, as have some attorneys, but there are those who still believe in withholding DUI evidence in these civil cases.  Their concern is that such evidence might get the jury too worked up – it might prejudice the jury against the defendant, and result in awards based on their general feeling about drunk driving rather than the facts of the case.

So the Nebraska legislature will debate large questions: are facts prejudicial? Does giving the whole picture of a drunk driving crash actually result in an unfair award to the victims? And is the goal of speeding the court system by encouraging defendants to admit guilt worth keeping juries in the dark about a critical aspect of the case they’re considering?

The fact that some worry that the information will cause prejudice against the defendant is a sign that there is less and less tolerance for drunk driving in Nebraska as everywhere else. Ultimately, that is good for the state, no matter whether or not LB 84 is passed.