When you, a friend or someone you love is injured by a drunk driver, you cannot help but wonder how the driver will be held accountable for their actions. In Ontario, there are two processes that address this negligent behaviour; both may proceed simultaneously but are for the most part, separate. A drunk driver faces criminal charges that are tried in the Ontario criminal court system, and for which they may later receive sentencing, if convicted. In a separate action and with the aid of a personal injury attorney, an injured accident victim may file a civil suit for damages to seek compensation for the losses that resulted from the accident.
Criminal charges for drunk drivers
In Ontario, there is no mandatory minimum sentencing to provide consistency and serve as a deterrent to those convicted of driving while impaired causing death or bodily harm. Currently, driving while impaired and causing bodily harm carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and driving while impaired and causing death, a maximum sentence of life. Judges have the discretion as to the length of sentencing and rely on general guidelines established by their provincial appeals court. What then are the sentencing principles that a judge relies on when determining the prison term for a person convicted of driving under the influence causing death or bodily harm?
A judge's sentence must be consistent with vague terms such as "fundamental principle" and "fundamental purpose" that lend themselves to a broad range of interpretations. A sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the crime and also, take into consideration the degree to which the defendant was responsible. The judge's sentence should be lenient enough to encourage the rehabilitation of the defendant while simultaneously serving as a deterrent to the defendant and others from repeating the crime. In the instance of habitual offenders, removal from society and the welfare of the public also must be considered. Finally, a judge must consider what reparations, if any, are appropriate. The only factor that a judge must avoid is punishment as a motive for the sentence as that could result in the sentence being challenged on appeal. These contradictory initiatives can lead a judge to impose a middle of the road sentence that neither promotes rehabilitation or deterrence.
Aggravating or mitigating factors will increase or decrease the sentence respectively. Examples of aggravating factors that could cause a judge to issue a harsh sentence are a prior criminal history, lack of remorse and failure to accept rehabilitation measures. Mitigating factors that could soften the sentence are first-time offenders with no prior criminal history, family responsibilities, and remorse for his/her actions. There is an unwritten consensus in the court that the maximum sentence should be handed out only for the most heinous of cases. To lessen the burden on the jail system, judges may grant 1 1/2 to 2 days credit to a defendant for time served to. Also, a judge can declare that defendant's driving under the influence sentence to run concurrently with the sentences for other crimes that were committed in a single act.
In a recent case, 29-year old Marco Muzzo was sentenced to 10-12 years in prison for the driving while impaired deaths of three young children and their grandfather, in what the judge said: "sends a message" to everyone who considers drinking and driving. At trial, Muzzo, produced a litany of character witnesses, expressed extreme remorse, a willingness to get treatment and promised to atone for his conduct. Muzzo had pleaded guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing death and two of impaired driving causing bodily harm.
The family of the victims, having lost four loved ones to this drunk driving incident, expressed anger and frustration by what was perceived as a light sentence. Judges give credit for time served, and often grant probation after just a fraction of the sentence has been served, so with good behavior, Muzzo, who comes from one of Canada's wealthiest families, might only spend a few years in prison.
The loved ones of accident victims who were severely or fatally injured by a drunk driver can give testimony in a criminal proceeding against a drunk driver, but this is the only avenue available to them, in influencing criminal charges or sentencing.
Filing a civil suit for damages against a drunk driver
In a separate action that may commence before criminal proceedings have concluded, accident victims and their family members are entitled to sue the negligent driver for damages, such as loss of income, medical and rehabilitation expenses, and pain and suffering. Financial compensation clearly will not heal the physical and emotional injuries that result from a serious accident, but they are the only method available in the civil law system for compensating the injured person. To get an expert opinion on your case, call the Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO); we welcome any questions and can apply our substantive skills to getting you the compensation you deserve.