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According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, there was a 16% rise in traffic fatalities in Montana in 2020 compared to the previous year.

From 184 car accident deaths in 2019, the Treasure State recorded 213 casualties in 2020, 66% of which are attributed to impaired driving. Data trends show that Montana is one of the states that rank high in drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people, along with its neighbors, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Idaho.

In an effort to reduce traffic fatalities, injuries, and property damage, especially DUI-related ones, the authorities have enlisted the help of task forces. As of June 2022, Montana has 36 approved county-level DUI task forces that work separately but share the same goals of educating citizens, supporting law enforcers, and campaigning for more stringent drunk driving regulations.

The following Montana laws have also been implemented to keep drivers and passengers safe when traversing Montana's rural and urban roadways.

Montana Impaired Driving Law

With far-reaching stretches of winding roads, weather hazards, and animals attempting to cross the road in the dark of the night, the last thing a driver would want to do in the Wild West is to drive drunk or high.

However, despite being one of the 10 least populated regions in the country, Montana has recently recorded high rates of impaired driving deaths per 100,000 people. Some may argue that this is due to lenient legislation, while others may say this is a cultural issue. While the reasons remain vague and complex, one thing is certain: traffic accidents associated with impaired driving have devastating effects on victims and their families.

When it comes to driving under the influence in Montana, having a blood alcohol content (BAC) greater than or equal to 0.08% while driving or in physical control of a non-commercial vehicle is considered a crime. Drivers carrying a commercial license, including those who operate school buses, could get a DUI arrest if their BAC amounts to 0.04%. For individuals under 21 years old, a BAC that reaches 0.02% qualifies as impaired driving.

The law also covers marijuana use. Commercial cannabis dispensaries have been allowed to operate since January 2022, and they are only permitted to sell to individuals who are at least 21 years of age. Residents of Montana and drivers from other states who use marijuana recreationally are not allowed to drive if their blood has more than 5 ng/mL of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

As with other states, the implied consent law is in effect in Montana. This means that by signing the driver’s license, a person has agreed to submit to a chemical test to check for alcohol or drugs in his or her system, should the need arise.

The state also has a 10-year look-back period for DUI convictions, giving residents and out-of-state drivers more reasons to avoid filling their rap sheets. First, second, and third DUI offenses in Montana are classified as misdemeanors, while fourth and subsequent offenses are treated as felonies. Potential penalties for drunk driving in Montana are as follows:

First Offense

24 hours to six months

$600 to $1,000

Completion of the ACT program and six-month license suspension with the possibility of probationary license with ignition interlock device requirement

Second Offense

Seven days to six months

$2,500 to $5,000

Completion of the ACT program and 12-month license suspension without the possibility of probationary license until 45 days of the suspension have been served

Third Offense

30 days to 12 months

$1,200 to $2,000

Completion of the ACT program and 12-month license suspension without the possibility of probationary license until 90 days of the suspension have been served

Fourth or Subsequent Offense

13 months

$5,000 to $10,000

Subsequent offenders get five years of license suspension. They are also required to complete a residential chemical dependency treatment program approved by the state’s Department of Correction. If the person completes the intervention, the remainder of the sentence may be served on probation.

Montana Dram Shop Law

In Montana, the liability for a car accident not only applies to at-fault motorists but also extends to establishments like bars, restaurants, breweries, and distilleries proven to have supplied an alcoholic beverage to a driver that caused injuries. Serving alcohol is not the only basis for a dram shop claim; a plaintiff’s attorney should also be able to prove that:

  • The defendant served alcohol to a person under 21 years of age despite knowing that the person was underage.

  • The defendant served alcohol to a person under 21 years of age and failed to make an effort to determine the customer’s age.

  • The defendant served alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated.

  • The defendant forced a person to consume alcohol or deceived a patron that their beverage was non-alcoholic.

Can private individuals also be implicated in a dram shop liability case in Montana? Yes, they can be. If the party host kept serving alcoholic drinks to a guest who was visibly intoxicated and this person caused an injury to others while driving on the way home, the party host could face penalties in civil courts.

The statute of limitations is shorter for these types of cases compared to typical personal injury actions. People who think they might have a dram shop claim must give notice of their intent to sue within 180 days of the sale or service. If the 180-day window elapses, they are barred from seeking claims. Once the notice has been served, the plaintiff is granted a two-year period to file a lawsuit.

Montana Speed Limit Law

The law defines the maximum speed limit a driver can legally run at in Montana. Even though speeding is not a crime, you could be fined, depending on how fast you were going over the limit. Under Montana Code 61-8-303, a motorist can drive up to:

  • 80 mph on interstate highways outside an urbanized area (70 mph for trucks)

  • 65 mph on interstate highways in an urbanized area

  • 70 mph during the daytime and 65 miles an hour during the nighttime on any public highway in the state

  • 25 mph in urban districts

Drivers should also be aware that temporary lower speed limits are frequently enforced in residential areas with nearby hospitals, schools, and construction zones. Ignorance of these sectional speed restrictions does not exempt motorists from being penalized.

Montana Code 61-8-725 summarizes the penalties for speeding in the state. The amount of the fine is contingent on how many miles over the speed limit the individual was driving. Under 61-8-303(1)(a), the excess speed limits and the corresponding fines are as follows:

  • 1-10 mph over the speed limit: $40

  • 11-20 mph over the speed limit: $70

  • 21-30 mph over the speed limit: $120

  • 31 mph or higher over the speed limit: $200

The penalties slightly vary for violations under 61-8-303(1)(b), 61-8-309, and 61-8-312. They are listed below, together with the excess speed limits:

  • 1-10 mph; $20

  • 11-20 mph; $70

  • 21-30 mph; $120

  • 31 mph or higher; $200

For offenders who have been found driving no more than 5 mph over the speed limit at night or 10 mph over the speed limit during the day, the violation will not be charged against their driver’s licenses. Additionally, the offense cannot serve as a basis for insurance companies to increase the policyholders’ coverage rates.

However, individuals caught exceeding 90 mph in violation of 61-8-303(1)(a) may be subject to increased insurance premiums and could have their licenses charged for the offense.

Montana Minimum Auto Insurance Requirements

The state requires all motorists to carry car insurance. Failure to show proof of compliance during a routine traffic stop or an accident can have serious consequences, including fines, imprisonment, and driver’s license suspension or revocation. The mandatory liability insurance amounts in Montana are:

  1. $25,000 for bodily injury per person

  2. $50,000 for bodily injury per accident

  3. $20,000 for property damage per accident

It is suggested that drivers get extra insurance policies to protect themselves from financial losses. In Montana, an insurer has a legal obligation to offer uninsured/underinsured motorist protection, but policyholders may reject the offer in writing. Personal protection plans can also include additional policies like collision and comprehensive, which are also good to have.

The penalties for driving without insurance in Montana include a fine between $250 and $500 for the first offense and $350 for the second offense. The punishment for a third or subsequent conviction is a $500 fine, up to 10 days imprisonment in the county jail, or both.

To verify motor vehicle insurance compliance during traffic stops and at accident scenes, highway patrol groups and local enforcement agencies in Montana use the Montana Insurance Verification System (MTIVS).

Montana Is an At-Fault State for Insurance Claims

Like the vast majority of the country, Montana follows a fault-based or tort liability system when it comes to insurance claims. This means that the party who caused the accident is the one responsible for paying the damages sustained by the victim, including injury-related expenses. In no-fault states, each party should use his or her own personal injury protection (PIP) coverage to pay for medical expenses, regardless of who is to blame.

But how is fault determined in fault states like Montana?

In some cases, it is obvious who is at fault, particularly in rear-end accidents or crashes associated with red-light runners. However, that is not always the case, and fault can sometimes be hard to determine.

At this point, the insurance companies try to figure out who is at fault by looking at the nature and severity of injuries and damage to property, talking to witnesses, looking at footage from traffic cameras, and looking at photos. All of these things help to make it clear who is at fault.

Montana Is a Modified Comparative Negligence State for Car Accident Lawsuits

Deciding on personal injury settlements or whether someone should be entitled to an award in the first place hinges on several theories. In Montana, the courts use modified comparative negligence with the 51% rule.

This principle allows injured people to recover damages, even if they had some contribution to the accident, as long as the extent of the fault does not reach 51%. The baseline of the law is that the plaintiff’s fault should not be greater than the defendant’s.

The system also implies that plaintiffs’ recoveries will be reduced according to their share of negligence. For instance, Anne was hurt in a head-on collision. The jury determined that the total losses amounted to $100,000. However, the jury found that Anne is 30% responsible for the crash. Therefore, Anne’s potential recovery will be reduced by 30%, leaving her with $70,000.

Montana’s Statute of Limitations for Car Accidents

The term “statute of limitations” refers to the period of time granted by the courts to negligence victims to file a lawsuit. These windows vary per state and are governed by certain exceptions. Attorneys are knowledgeable about these limitations, and having one can help a plaintiff ensure that lawsuits are filed on time.

The statute of limitations in Montana for car accidents, whether the claimant is a driver, passenger, pedestrian, cyclist, motorcyclist, or electric scooter rider, is three years. 

The three-year period begins after the date of the car accident. The same timeline applies to car accidents resulting in wrongful death. The only difference is that the three-year clock starts ticking after the date of the accident victim's death. For car accident lawsuits involving property damage, which falls under the clause “injury to property,” the deadline is two years.

As mentioned, there are special circumstances that may extend the Montana statute of limitations. These situations include:

  1. Age. If the plaintiffs were minors, they would have two years to file a claim, starting after their 18th birthday.

  2. Mental capacity. If the wronged parties had a mental illness at the time of loss that resulted in institutionalization, they would be given two years to file a claim, beginning from the time they were declared mentally competent. It is important to note that in these cases, the extension cannot be more than five years from the date of loss.

  3. Death. If the person authorized to bring an action passes away within the statute of limitations, the deceased person’s representative would be granted up to one year to file a claim, commencing after the original party’s demise.

Average Settlements for Montana Car Accident Lawsuits

Given Montana’s adherence to the modified comparative negligence system and the varying nature of collisions, the average settlement for car accidents in the state actually depends on several factors. There is no set formula to determine the value of a case beforehand, and a plaintiff’s recovery will be calculated by taking the following aspects into consideration:

  1. The plaintiff’s contribution to the accident. As discussed, in a modified comparative negligence state, the final settlement amount will be reduced in proportion to the person’s percentage of fault.

  2. Losses sustained. This includes economic and non-economic damages brought by the accident, covering medical expenses, rehabilitation fees, lost wages, property damage, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium.

  3. Circumstances of the collision. If the court finds intentional acts in the defendant, the plaintiff could be entitled to punitive damages.

  4. The plaintiff’s failure to mitigate damages. The injured individual carries an obligation to mitigate the damages that he or she sustained. If, for example, the defendant was able to prove that the plaintiff’s recovery period was prolonged than it should be by deliberately not attending medical follow-ups, the compensation could be affected.

Montana has damage caps dictating the margin of financial compensation a plaintiff can receive. For punitive damages, the limit is $10 million or 3% of a defendant’s net worth, whichever is less. For cases involving government defendants, recoveries are capped at $750,000 for each claim and $1.5 million for each occurrence. Lastly, in dram shop cases, a plaintiff’s settlement is limited to $250,000 for punitive damages and $250,000 for non-economic damages.

Legal Resources for Montana Car Accident Victims

Lawyer Referral and Information Service

The Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) of the Montana State Bar Association helps the public by providing legal resources and attorney referrals in Montana.

Court Help Program

The Court Help Program is a public service provided by the Montana Supreme Court. It helps people with civil legal problems understand their rights and obligations and navigate the justice system should they decide to resolve a civil case on their own.

Montana Legal Services Association

The Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free legal information, advice, and other civil legal services to low-income Montanans.

Crash Records Request

The Montana Highway Patrol assists entitled parties in obtaining crash records pertaining to their incidents. Persons who are allowed to secure a report include entities named on a crash report, individuals who experienced the loss, parents or legal guardians of minors who were hurt in accidents, agents (attorneys and insurers) of an involved party, and law enforcement officers acting in an official capacity.

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