Court Says It’s Okay for Drunk Drivers to Sue Bars

Earlier this month the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a divisive ruling that, in effect, allows drivers convicted of driving under the influence to sue the bars that served them. (1)

The split decision (5-2) relates to a 2009 lawsuit filed by Frederick Voss against Tiffany’s Restaurant, Toms River, NJ. According to that suit Mr. Voss, who was driving a motorcycle, was involved in an accident after he had been drinking at the restaurant. Voss, who had a reported blood alcohol level of 0.196, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. The legal alcohol limit in New Jersey is 0.08. (1)

Although he pleaded guilty to the DUI, Voss sued the owner and driver of the car that hit him, as well as the restaurant for continuing to serve him even though he clearly was intoxicated. An Ocean County Superior Court judge dismissed the actions against the car’s driver and owner citing a 1997 statute that prohibits anyone convicted of drunk driving from suing for damages. The judge, however, allowed the action against the restaurant citing the State’s dram shop laws, which were adopted some ten years earlier. (2)

Dram shop laws (so named from the colonial era practice of serving alcohol by units of liquid measure) state that servers and the owners of establishments that serve alcohol can be held financially responsible for injuries or property damages caused by an intoxicated customer’s action, including drunk driving. (3)

At issue in this case is whether the 1997 statute repeals the older dram shop laws. The majority Supreme Court decision claims it does not, noting that both aim to reduce the incidents of drunk driving.

Under the 1997 statute, injured drunk drivers are denied the right to sue for insurance coverage of their injuries – a measure designed to deter drunk driving under automobile insurance reform. The dram shop laws also act as a deterrent by holding liquor establishments accountable for the actions of their patrons whose judgment may be impaired due to their alcohol consumption. (2)

Two dissenting justices stated that the 1997 statute clearly bans drunk drivers from suing anyone in connection with accidents they may have as a result of their drinking. The majority opinion, however, contends that the 1997 statute pertains only to automobile insurance matters and was not intended to supersede the dram shop laws. (2)

(1) http://www.northjersey.com/news/crime_courts/crime_courts_news/NJ_court_Drunk_driver_can_sue_bar_that_served_him.html
(2) http://www.law.com/jsp/nj/PubArticleNJ.jsp?id=1202495836070&rss=nj&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1

(3) http://www.alcoholalert.com/drunk-driving-dram-shop.html