The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that 17,794 drunk driving arrests were made in the state in 2022; this total is lower than the 19,656 arrests that occurred in the previous year. In spite of the decrease, however, impaired driving still resulted in 2,967 traffic crashes in 2022, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security. Davidson County had the highest number of alcohol-related accidents in the same year, with 460, followed by Rutherford County, which had 239.
As part of the state’s efforts to prevent drunk driving accidents, the Tennessee Highway Safety Office continues to impose the Alcohol and Other Drugs Countermeasures program, which focuses on the stricter enforcement of drunk driving ordinances and the training of law enforcement officers and prosecutors under seminars and classes involving DUI laws in the state. The office also distributes funds that enable local law enforcement agencies to further curb drunk driving on public roadways.
To help those involved in impaired driving accidents, this article will provide an overview of Tennessee's various DUI laws and guidelines. It will also offer insight into the legal rules and policies involved if a victim wishes to sue a drunk driver for their losses.
General DUI Laws in Tennessee
Tennessee law prohibits any motorist from driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or any mixture of these substances. The state imposes a “per se” limit of 0.08% for the blood alcohol content level of most drivers, while those who operate commercial vehicles must adhere to a stricter threshold of 0.04%. Underage drivers are also prohibited from driving if their BAC level is equal to or greater than 0.02%, as defined by the state’s zero tolerance policy. Any person who reaches or exceeds these limits will be convicted of a DUI offense.
Enhanced DUI Offenses
A standard DUI charge in Tennessee can become an enhanced criminal offense if the impaired driver ends up injuring or killing someone in an accident; vehicular assault is classified as a class D felony, while vehicular homicide is considered a class B felony.
Moreover, vehicular assault or homicide can escalate into aggravated vehicular assault or homicide, resulting in more stringent sanctions; the former is deemed a class C felony, while the latter is a class A felony. A motorist will be found guilty of these offenses if they injure or kill another person and:
They have at least two prior DUI or vehicular assault convictions (or any combination of these infractions if their offense leads to aggravated vehicular homicide).
They have at least one prior conviction for vehicular homicide (or aggravated vehicular homicide if their offense leads to aggravated vehicular assault).
They have a BAC level equal to or greater than 0.20% and one prior DUI conviction (or vehicular assault if their offense leads to aggravated vehicular homicide).
An enhanced infraction of child endangerment can also apply if a drunk driver is operating a vehicle with a passenger who is younger than 18. The resulting penalties will escalate further if the child is injured or killed in an accident.
The Implied Consent Law in Tennessee
Motorists in Tennessee are deemed to have automatically consented to undergo a blood or breath test to measure their BAC level, in line with the state’s implied consent law. The test shall be carried out at the request of a law enforcement officer with enough cause to believe that a motorist was driving a vehicle while intoxicated or had committed vehicular assault or homicide. The same applies to those suspected of committing aggravated vehicular assault or homicide.
Before administering a test, an officer will inform a motorist of the penalties they might face if they refuse to submit to the test. A refusal will result in the potential suspension of the individual’s driving license, and they may also be required to drive with an ignition interlock device.
What Are the Penalties for a DUI in Tennessee?
Tennessee imposes varying penalties for DUI offenses, with an offender receiving increasingly stricter sanctions every time they commit a violation. Those convicted of a DUI offense with aggravating factors such as child endangerment and vehicular assault typically receive even harsher penalties, as mentioned above.
Standard DUI sanctions in Tennessee include the following:
From 48 hours to 11 months (mandatory minimum sentence of seven consecutive days if BAC level is 0.20% or greater)
Between $350 and $1,000
A maximum of one year (offender can apply for a restricted license)
From 45 days to 11 months and 29 days
Between $600 and $3,500
A maximum of two years (offender can apply for a restricted license)
From 120 days to 11 months and 29 days
Between $1,100 and $10,000
A maximum of six years (offender can apply for a restricted license)
Fourth and subsequent offenses
A maximum of one year with a mandatory minimum sentence of 150 consecutive days
Between $3,000 and $15,000
A maximum of eight years (offender can apply for a restricted license)
A DUI offender must also have an ignition interlock device installed and maintained within their vehicle at their expense once their license has been reinstated. The device will remain in use for up to six months if the person commits a violation within five years of a previous one. Additionally, all offenders must complete an alcohol and drug treatment program, with repeat violations resulting in their vehicle's potential seizure or forfeiture.
Vehicular Assault and Homicide
Any motorist who injures someone in an accident while intoxicated will pay up to $5,000 in fines and can be jailed between two and 12 years. If the accident led to a person’s death, the penalties escalate to a $25,000 fine and a jail sentence lasting eight to 30 years. The offender’s license can also be revoked for one to five years, depending on whether they have any previous DUI violations, and they are not eligible for a restricted license. If they killed someone, the revocation will last for up to 10 years.
An impaired driver charged with aggravated vehicular assault will pay between $5,000 and $15,000 in fines and can be imprisoned for three to 15 years. If their conviction involves aggravated vehicular homicide, they will pay a maximum fine of $50,000 and serve 15 to 60 years in prison.
If a DUI offender had a passenger under 18, the state would fine them $1,000 and sentence them to a mandatory minimum of 30 days in jail. If they end up injuring or killing the child in an accident, they will be sentenced to a maximum prison sentence of 12 or 15 years, respectively. They will also be fined $5,000 if the child was injured or $10,000 if they were killed.
Underage Drinking and Driving
An underage driver in Tennessee who operates a vehicle while intoxicated will be fined up to $250 and sentenced to participate in community service. Additionally, their license will be revoked for one year, with no provision for a restricted license.
DUI offenders who violate Tennessee’s implied consent law by refusing to submit to a chemical test will have their license revoked for:
One year on their first offense.
Two years on their second offense.
Two years if they caused an accident that resulted in someone’s injury.
Five years if they caused an accident that resulted in someone’s death.
Tennessee’s Dram Shop Law
Under Tennessee’s own dram shop law, victims of a drunk driving accident can file a suit against the alcohol-licensed establishment that sold liquor to the driver who caused the crash. The law will apply if the establishment in question sold alcoholic beverages, even if the driver was already visibly intoxicated or under the legal drinking age of 21. Before any damages can be awarded to the victim, a jury of at least 12 people must determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the sale of alcohol was the proximate cause of the offending driver’s intoxication and, subsequently, the resulting accident.
It should be noted that Tennessee’s dram shop law does not apply to the social host of any party or gathering who gives alcohol to a driver who then goes on to cause an accident. However, a drunk driving accident victim can still file a negligence claim to hold a host accountable if the latter gave alcohol to an underage individual who subsequently injured or killed someone in a vehicular crash. Such a claim is based on the principle of the host’s duty of reasonable care in keeping people safe and their failure to uphold such a duty by giving minors alcoholic beverages, which is also punishable by state law.
How Much Can Someone Sue for a Drunk Driving Injury in Tennessee?
There is no cap on the economic damages that DUI-related accident victims in Tennessee can recover. This allows plaintiffs in such cases to maximize the potential compensation they can receive for monetary losses related to medical treatments, repair costs, and lost income.
On the other hand, Tennessee does have a statutory limit of $750,000 on the total non-economic damages that a plaintiff can pursue and recover in an injury or wrongful death claim. These damages stem from non-tangible factors like pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life. However, this cap shall not apply if:
The defendant in the case specifically intended to injure the victim, and their conduct did result in the latter’s injury.
The defendant in the case was under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or any other similar substances, significantly impairing their judgment as a result.
Drunk driving accident victims in Tennessee can also seek punitive damages, which are awarded to punish the defendant for their actions. These are only allowed if a plaintiff can prove using “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant acted with malicious, reckless, or intentional conduct. If the court awards punitive damages to a plaintiff, they will be limited to $500,000 or two times the amount of compensatory damages awarded, whichever is greater.
Tennessee’s Modified Comparative Fault Rule
The modified comparative fault rule in Tennessee is another factor that can affect the total amount of damages awarded to a drunk driving accident victim. According to this legal rule, a plaintiff’s total damages will be deducted if the court determines they are partially responsible for the accident that caused their injuries. This can apply if the plaintiff committed any violations or acted negligently, thus contributing to the accident’s occurrence. The percentage deducted from their damage award will equal the percentage of their assigned fault.
Like other states that follow the modified comparative fault rule, Tennessee follows a legal threshold determining whether a plaintiff can still recover damages. Specifically, a person will be barred from recovery if their fault in the case reaches or exceeds 50%.
The Statute of Limitations in Tennessee
Under Tennessee law, victims of DUI-related accidents can have a maximum of two years to file an injury claim or lawsuit against liable parties. This differs from the limitation of one year in most personal injury cases since vehicular assault or homicide caused by impaired driving is treated as a criminal offense. According to state law, if any criminal charges are brought against an individual being sued for personal injury, the statute of limitations will be extended to two years. Regardless of whether it is extended or not, it will begin counting down from the date of the underlying accident.
If the victim in an alcohol-related crash dies later due to their injuries, their surviving spouse, children, parent, or representative will also have up to one year to take legal action. However, the statute of limitations will begin instead on the date of the victim’s passing. In addition, the statute can be extended to two years under the same reasons applicable for an injury claim, as mentioned above.
Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations
Tennessee’s statute of limitations can also be delayed or extended if certain legal disabilities affect the capacity of a drunk driving accident victim to take legal action. For example, a minor victim would have one year after reaching the age of 18 to pursue a claim. Additionally, a person deemed mentally incompetent may also be unable to file before the statute expires. As such, if their disability lasts beyond three years, they will be given an additional three years to file a suit once they recover from their mental incompetence.
However, Tennessee law states that if a person with any of these disabilities has a court-assigned representative who can file a suit on their behalf, the extension of the statute of limitations shall not apply in their case. The court will only grant an extension if the representative can prove with sufficient evidence that the person with a disability did not know or could not have reasonably known that they had a cause to take legal action.
Another potential exception can occur if the defendant in a drunk driving accident case leaves the state after causing the crash and before a victim can sue them. If this happens, Tennessee’s statute of limitations will not consider the period of the defendant’s absence as part of its duration.
Resources for Folks Injured by an Impaired Driver in Tennessee
The Tennessee Bar Association helps state residents seek legal assistance through its website’s For The Public section. It offers information regarding city bar organizations in East, Middle, and Southeast Tennessee that offer lawyer referral services for those who wish to find an attorney for potential legal representation. It also addresses inquiries regarding fee-related matters and disputes, as well as a potential plaintiff’s eligibility for a free attorney. The organization can be reached for additional concerns and queries at 615-383-7421.
The Tennessee Supreme Court established Justice For All as part of its initiative to provide accessible legal aid to people throughout the state. Its website can redirect low-income Tennesseans to different agencies that can address their specific concerns; these include West Tennessee Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. Additionally, the website offers information on civil law issues and a basic background on appellate, trial, and general sessions courts in the state. Lastly, those who wish to speak to a lawyer for free legal information can dial 1-844-435-7486 to use the Justice For All program’s Help4TN service, which can connect them to available attorneys for consultations regarding non-criminal matters.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a nonprofit organization that assists victims of impaired driving accidents nationwide. Its team is available for Tennesseans who need assistance in attending courtroom proceedings and drafting statements for their cases and claims. It also helps plaintiffs look for attorneys to represent them and provides them with relevant resources to contribute to their case. Additionally, it connects victims and their families with other drunk driving accident survivors and emotional support groups to help them with their long-term recovery.
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