Historically, South Carolina drivers have not had a very good track record when it comes to drunk driving fatalities; our state has one of the highest rates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation. Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reports that there were 335 drunk driving fatalities in South Carolina in 2014 alone. Unfortunately, a recent article in the Beaufort Gazette reports that drunk driving has claimed yet another life in South Carolina, this time a 24-year-old musician from St. Helena Island.
According to the article, the young musician was driving home after performing when his vehicle was hit in a head on collision by a driver who was allegedly driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The allegedly impaired driver turned her vehicle onto Trask Parkway and was traveling in the wrong direction when she collided with the victim’s vehicle. It is reported that the victim died of blunt force trauma at the scene of the accident and that the impaired driver fled the scene. The authorities were able to apprehend her, and she has since been charged with felony driving under the influence (DUI) as well as leaving the scene of an accident.
Driving Under the Influence v.s. Felony Driving Under the Influence
In the instance described above, the woman was charged with felony driving under the influence rather than simply driving under the influence. There is an important distinction between these two crimes in South Carolina. A person can be charged with driving under the influence based on South Carolina’s Code of Laws section 56-6-2930 if the driver drove within the state while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both, to the extent that their faculties were materially and appreciably impaired. The punishment for a DUI in South Carolina varies depending on how many times the driver has previously been convicted of driving under the influence, however, a first offense DUI can be punished by a fine of $400 or imprisonment for 48 hours to 30 days. However, the court has the discretion to waive the minimum prison requirement in exchange for the defendant performing 48 hours of public service. It is important to note that these penalties represent the minimum sentence possible for a DUI conviction in South Carolina and that various aggravating factors, for example the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), can increase these penalties.
On the other hand, drunk drivers in South Carolina who cause great bodily harm or death can be charged with the more serious crime of felony driving under the influence. A felony DUI, under South Carolina’s Code of Laws section 56-6-2945, is committed when a driver who is under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both, either breaks a law or neglects his duties as a driver and as a result causes great bodily harm or death to another person. In other words, if a drunk driver causes great bodily harm or death while driving, the DUI is elevated to a felony offense. Because felony driving under the influence is a more serious crime, the penalties imposed on violators are more severe. For example, anyone who is convicted for a felony DUI offense in South Carolina must be punished:
- If great bodily injury results: By a fine of $5,100 to $10,100, and imprisonment for 30 days to 15 years; or
- If death results: By a fine of $10,100 to $25,100, and imprisonment for one to 25 years.
But what does it mean to cause “great bodily injury?” South Carolina’s Code of Laws defines great bodily injury as a physical injury that creates a substantial risk of death, causes serious permanent disfigurement, or impairs bodily functions. Clearly, the crime of felony driving under the influence is meant to be reserved for very serious situations, such as the car crash illustrated above in which the musician was killed.
Leaving the Scene of an Accident – DUI Hit and Run
After the Beaufort County drunk driving accident, the woman who has been charged with felony driving under the influence was also charged with the separate crime of leaving the scene of the accident because she fled after the crash. Leaving the scene of a DUI accident, also referred to as a DUI hit and run, is also a very serious offense. Unfortunately, drunk drivers often attempt to flee the scene despite the fact that running away from a DUI accident can land them in even more trouble than they were originally in. A driver who flees from a DUI accident in South Carolina can face having their driver’s license suspended or revoked, additional fines, and even additional jail time.
Civil Drunk Driving Cases
While the criminal penalties for drunk driving are often well publicized, it is also important to keep in mind that victims of a drunk driving accident have the ability to sue the drunk driver in civil court. The victims can sue for compensation both for damage done to their property as well as for any personal injuries that they suffered. While criminal proceedings are meant to protect the public from future drunk driving incidents, civil cases are designed to help compensate the victims of the accident that already occurred.
It is also possible to file a civil wrongful death claim if your loved one was killed by a drunk driver. The main goal of a wrongful death claim is to compensate the deceased victim’s family for things such as lost companionship, lost wages, the expenses associated with holding a funeral, and punitive damages. However, the mere fact that the defendant was already convicted in a criminal DUI case, does not mean that a civil wrongful death case based on the same car accident will be a slam dunk. The victim’s family will still have to prove their case, however, if there was enough evidence to obtain a conviction in criminal court, there will likely also be sufficient evidence for a civil trial.
Need Legal Advice?
If you have been involved in a car accident in which you suspect that the at-fault driver was driving under the influence, you may be entitled to file a civil lawsuit against them. The experienced Rock Hill car accident attorneys at the Elrod Pope Law Firm help clients throughout South Carolina with exactly these types of cases and would be happy to assist you as well. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.
Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.