Does a life-or-death call-out override sobriety laws?

The scenario: you’re in a bar, enjoying a boozy evening out with friends. Your mobile rings. It’s a real emergency: if you don’t hustle, someone will die. Maybe you’re the only available pilot, maybe you’re the only available computer technician. A self-test kit has recently confirmed that you’re only modestly over the legal limit, but you’re over the limit nonetheless. You communicate this to the other party. They insist. Who assumes responsibility?

Does it depend upon who calls you?
Does it depend upon the degree of the incident for which you were called out?
Does it depend upon the degree of the incident during the call-out that may have been because of your lack of sobriety?
Nuance this further as you desire to enlighten Dopers.

Sample scenarios:

A Sheriff goes into the bar and needs help chasing the kidnapper of a little boy.

You’re a medevac pilot and off-shift. The other pilots have gone down with food poisoning. If you don’t fly, the patient will die.

A ship has gone down. The weather is bad and your plane is the only plane available capable of flying in such conditions.

Sample issue

You run a red light.

While driving at 140 delivering a transplant organ you crash into a house.

You run over someone, killing them.

While your plane is taxiing to land after a [successful / unsuccessful] rescue you chew someone up with a propeller.

During the rescue process, you land your seaplane atop a life-raft, killing all aboard.

Add as you feel fit.

Please note that this is GQ - if I wanted to ask if you would ignore sobriety laws, or convict someone who ignored sobriety laws in such circumstances, I would have put this in IMHO.

There is a defence of necessity in the UK to drink driving. Whether the above circumstances counted I do not know.


As far as I know, there is no excuse for drunk driving. “Oh, someone will die if I don’t drive” - someone very well may die if you do drive.

Ah, but does ‘will’ override ‘may’?

If you’re a pilot or a surgeon, you’d damn well better not be flying or operating drunk. And the sheriff should know better than to recruit random civilians from a bar to chase a criminal suspect.

If you’re too drunk to drive, you’re most likely too drunk to be the best person to respond to an emergency.

Besides this point, there is no ‘necessity’ to drive drunk. Presumably there is at least one person in the bar who is still sober enough to drive you to the hospital operating room. Not to mention taxicabs.

Well, let’s try a different hypothetical, which doesn’t involve the drunk driver being some sort of professional whose services are required. You and your buddies are car camping out in the woods, clearly out of cellular range, with a cooler full of beer which you are happily consuming. Somebody gets bitten by a rattlesnake, or something else occurs which demands serious medical attention. The closest to sober person in the group drives the victim back into the nearest town to get help.

Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Of course you drive to the hospital, as carefully as humanly possible.

Some people seem to think that every single time someone with a .08 BAC gets behind the wheel there is guaranteed to be a spectacular fiery crash that would do the A-Team proud, resulting in the death of dozens of nuns, genius-level toddlers, and 9/11 Search & Rescue hero puppies.

[Some people seem to think that every single time someone with a .08 BAC gets behind the wheel there is guaranteed to be a spectacular fiery crash that would do the A-Team proud, resulting in the death of dozens of nuns, genius-level toddlers, and 9/11 Search & Rescue hero puppies.

Oh, if only I had that way with words!

According to wikipedia’s entry on Necessity as a legal term:

But there are no cites, so continue to speculate until the lawyers find the thread.

I can say that, as a nurse, I would absolutely not go to work intoxicated whether I had a driver or not, because if I fuck something up, Bad Things would happen to me and my license. On the other hand, if I’m not at work and you fall and sprain your ankle where I’ve been drinking, I’ll be somewhat more protected under Good Samaritan laws, and probably help you wrap it and we can drunk hobble together to find more appropriate help. A gushing head wound? My help would be limited to finding a cleanish bar towel and applying pressure while someone called an ambulance - no skilled nursing care, only care that any layperson could provide.

If you get into more extravagant Mass Disaster scenarios, I guess I’d have to weigh the risk of people dying vs the risk of all the lawyers surviving.

There’s no point nitpicking the scenarios because you can just expand the scenarios until they’re more precise eg:

What if you’re the only pilot who can fly the plane who happens to be in the bar at that time?

What if you’re the only surgeon in there? I’d rather be operated on by a drunk surgeon than a sober regular guy.

What if you’re not a random civilian but a deputy on your night off? And you have a particular skill in some area?

Necessity would probably cover you as long as nothing happens but what’s more interesting is what would happen if you killed someone in the process or something.

I reckon you’d be let off the drunk driving but be found guilty of manslaughter - you’ve still got to take measures to make sure you don’t harm any innocents even if you’re legally drunk driving


I was thinking of the situation where you are the only one who can drive but perhaps drunk at a campsite when you find out about a forest fire that is approaching your location and the only hope for you, your pregnant wife who can’t drive, and your 3 other children is to drive out of the area. It would seem very irresponsible and perhaps even child abuse or reckless endangerment if you didn’t.

But we all know any responsible doper would say “Sorry kids, I’ve just had three beers and won’t be getting behind the wheel of that car for exactly three hours come hell or high water…or forest fire. Would someone please set a timer for three hours, it’s my understanding that three hours is how long it’ll take for all the alcohol to flush out of my body so that we are safe to drive again. It’s the law!
Now, who’s got marshmallows.”

(Feel free to make appropriate adjustments so that it’s ‘below the legal limit’ instead of ‘all the alcohol is out of my system’)

In most serious speculative end of the world scenarios cockroaches are the last to go.

The “drunk driver escaping from a knife-wielding attacker” was the textbook necessity case I was taught in criminal law. All of the other hypos would be case specific.

I’m not an absolutist on this one, and I doubt the law is either. If I were on a jury, I’d take circumstances into consideration, including the level of impairment versus the direness of the emergency.

Although I’d also take the drunk surgeon over the sober regular guy, I’d prefer a sober, well-rested one. And if I have to have emergency surgery on the pool table of the bar, I’ll take the surgeon with the lowest BAC (you’d think someone sober would be on call, but if the zombie apocalypse hits in the middle of the surgeons’ convention when everyone’s shitfaced, so be it). If it’s a true life-or-death situation, the law would likely agree.

This actually happened to, of all people, Keith Moon. From Wiki:

The daughter thinks that Keith’s wife, Kim, was driving but that Keith took the rap for her. She interviewed an eye witness who said

How sad, but it does answer my question.

Eh, if you’re in that bad a shape that your best hope is to have someone drunk cut on you on a pool table, you’re most likely dead anyway.