Another Reason to Drive Sober: Limited Civil Liability in California for Liquor Sales

1097247_open_sign.jpg Drivers at fault in an accident in the state of California may derive slight relief from the knowledge that juries award damages based on comparative negligence. Therefore, if a jury assigns liability to both the driver and the city where the accident happened for Dangerous Condition of Public Property, the city will share the liability with the at fault driver. The jury may even decide that the plaintiff was partially at fault for the accident and consequently limit the liability for the defendant. However, drivers who operate a vehicle under the influence cannot expect that the bar that served them that extra drink will be found liable for injuries they might cause as a result.

In the opinion written for Ruiz v. Safeway (2012), Cal.App.4th, the Court expounded on the history of civil liability for businesses that serve alcohol to customers who turn around and drive intoxicated. In the 1970’s, California courts started to question whether consumers were solely responsible for injuries caused by driving under the influence. A series of decisions came down that said that those who served excessive liquor to customers could foresee that intoxicated patrons would be likely to make bad decisions, which could lead to injuries and death. The courts allowed several negligence claims against purveyors of alcohol. However, the legislature did not like the implications of these decisions and, in 1978, it adopted Business and Professions Code 25602. Business and Professions Code 25602 states that no one who sells or gives an alcoholic beverage to an obviously intoxicated person “shall be civilly liable to any injured person or the estate of such person for injuries inflicted on that person as a result of intoxication by the consumer of such alcoholic beverage.” Although the supplier of alcohol cannot be held civilly liable, the statute provides that any such supplier may be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Drunk drivers are responsible for their behavior in this state. According to statistics from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in 2010 195,879 drivers were arrested for DUI in California and more than 26,000 were involved in injury and fatal accidents when driving under the influence. Those drivers are subject to criminal and civil penalties within the justice system, which takes a harsh stance against people who take theirs and others’ lives into their reckless hands. Injury victims must also take Business and Professions Code 25602 into consideration because, often, the drunk driver does not have the means to pay a judgment against him or her for the damage caused. The legislature’s decision to indemnify so-called dram shops protects business, but cuts off an avenue for injury victims to be compensated for their losses, pain, and suffering.

The exception that makes the rule lies in Business and Professions Code 25602.1. The statute makes any person who sells, causes to be sold, or gives alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor liable for civil claims. The courts have been cautious to allow claims under this statute. For example, in the cases Salem v. Superior Court (1989), Cal.App.3d and Ruiz v. Safeway (2012), Cal.App.4th the courts threw out claims against businesses that sold alcohol consumed by a minor who subsequently drank and drove. In Ruiz v. Safeway, Morse, an intoxicated minor accompanied his passenger into Safeway where the clerk sold his passenger beer. Morse drank the beer and then killed another driver on the road. The court said it was not foreseeable that Morse would be drinking the alcohol sold to his passenger.

In Salem v. Superior Court, the court found that the corporation that owned the 7-11 franchise could not be held responsible if a franchisee sold alcohol to an intoxicated minor because it did not have any agency in the decision. Furthermore, the Court reiterated that the minor must be obviously intoxicated at the time of the sale for such a suit to have standing in the first place. Under the law, minors often have some flexibility when it comes to liability, but the law does not look kindly those that drink and drive, minors or otherwise. Don’t live with the guilt, don’t live with the criminal and civil penalties, don’t drink and drive.

Gregory Brod is a wrongful death attorney based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Brod Law Firm is sympathetic to the particular needs of grieving family members that must relive the pain long after an accident took their loved one. Contact the Brod Law Firm today for a free consultation to see if can help you.