If you have read this blog in the past, you might be familiar with what are known as “dram shop” laws. For those who are not familiar, dram shop laws allow the victims of drunk drivers to civilly sue the establishment that served the drunk driver with alcohol prior to the victim’s injury. Although dram shop laws specifically refer to the suing of restaurants and bars, the question of whether liability, be it civil or criminal, can be placed on any third parties who contribute to a driver’s driving drunk leading to injury has been the center of much debate.
There may, however, not be much of a debate, at least in Georgia. The Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that allows a victim to sue a third party, non-drunk driver, in a DUI collision as an “active tortfeasor.”
In September of 2016, Lakenin Morris was asked by his cousin, Keith Stroud, to drive his car. Morris agreed, Stroud handed him the keys, and they were off. Both had been drinking. Morris later collided with 18-year-old Alonzo Reid, who was hospitalized. Reid sued both Morris, the driver, and Stroud, who provided the keys to Morris. Reid was awarded $23,000 in compensatory damages, to be split equally between Morris and Stroud, and $50,000 from Morris in punitive damages. The trial court, however, decline to award the $100,000 in punitive damages that Reid was asking from Stroud. The trial court concluded that punitive damages were limited to “active tortfeasors,” or, in this case, the actual drunk driver, Morris.
The Georgia Supreme Court, however, reversed the trial court’s decision by adopting a broad interpretation of the word “active tortfeasor.”
“[Georgia law] does not define the term ‘active tortfeasor,’ but from the beginning…has made a distinction between tort defendants who ‘acted’ and those who ‘failed to act.’ The text thus suggests that an ‘active tortfeasor’ is a defendant who engaged in an affirmative act of negligence or other tortious conduct, as opposed to a defendant whose negligence consist of an omission to act when he is under a legal duty to act,” wrote Justice Michael Boggs in discussing the history of Georgia’s punitive damages laws. Justice Boggs went on to say that it does not matter whether the defendant was the drunk driver, but rather whether Morris’s conduct, at least in part, caused the injury.
In other words, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that by drinking and giving his keys to Morris, whom he knew was drunk, Stroud was an active tortfeasor who could be subject to punitive damages just as Morris, the actual drunk driver, was.
While some states, like Georgia, continue to expand the reach of their dram shop laws, some states like California remain in their determination that only the person who drove drunk can be held liable for injuries resulting from a DUI.
The California Civil Code specifically states, “It is the intent of the Legislature to…reinstate the prior judicial interpretation…that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person…[N]o social host who furnishes alcohol beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.”
Although this code section does not specifically address the situation that led to Reid’s injury, you can see California’s view on the matter. This is not to say that California affords full protection to third parties. California still holds establishments civilly liable for injuries resulting from a DUI when the establishment knowingly served alcohol to an underage drinker who drives and causes injury. Additionally, although rarely enforced, establishments can face misdemeanor charges for serving alcohol to “any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person.”