Should Bars be Allowed to be Sued when they Serve Alcohol to Someone who Later Causes a DUI-Related Accident?

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

The question has been raised recently several times: Should victims of DUI-related collisions be allowed to sue the bar who served the drunk driver that caused the collision?

Relatives of an entire family that was killed by a drunk driver certainly think so.

Relatives of the Abbas family have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two Kentucky bars who are accused of over-serving a customer, and against the customer’s estate.

According to the police report, in January of this year, Joey Lee Bailey consumed at least two 22-ounce beers and three double White Russians at the restaurant, Roosters Wings in Georgetown. Bailey then drove to Horseshoes Kentucky Grill & Saloon in Lexington. There he was served at least one beer and four more double White Russians.

After Bailey left the last bar, Lexington police said they received a report of a white pickup truck traveling in the wrong direction on the interstate. Shortly thereafter, a collision was reported.

Bailey had collided with an SUV carrying a family of five who were headed home from a vacation in Florida. Bailey did not survive and unfortunately neither did the occupants of the SUV; 42-year-old Issam Abbas, and Issam’s wife, 38-year-old Rima Abbas, along with their three children, 14-year-old Ali Abbas, 13-year-old Isabella Abbas and 7-year-old Giselle Abbas.

“For the surviving family members, as well as for their many friends left behind, the nightmare and grief caused by that crash will never go away,” said Greg Bubalo, an attorney representing the Abbas family. “By filing the lawsuit, the family hopes to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that this type of tragedy does not occur to another family. This is a second time fatalities have been alleged to have resulted from over-serving alcohol by Horseshoes.” 

According to the coroner, Bailey’s blood alcohol content level was 0.306 percent, more than three times the legal limit in Kentucky (and California) of 0.08 percent.

While I agree with Mr. Bubalo’s first statement, I wholeheartedly disagree with his second.

I’m sorry, but it is not the job of bars and restaurants to babysit customers. It is not their job to make sure they don’t drink and then drive. And it is not their job to monitor whether someone is too intoxicated to drive.

Bailey, an adult, made the decision to have that many drinks and then, after having left the bars, get behind the wheel. What were the bars supposed to have done? Breathalyze Bailey before he left? Were they supposed to take his keys away? Were they supposed to have someone monitor the exit of the parking lot?

Fortunately, thus far, the California legislature feels the same.

Fortunately, California sees it the same.

While other states such as Kentucky may hold a bar liable for injuries caused by a drunk driving customer, in California it is the customer’s willful decision to drink and then drive which is the cause of any subsequent DUI collision. Thus, in California, bars and restaurants are shielded from liability when a customer over drinks, drives away, and causes injury or damage.

California’s “Dram Shop Laws” (California Civil Code section 1714) read as follows:

(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to . . . reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely 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.

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic 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.

(d) Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

As you can see, the laws are different if the customer is under the age of 21. It is the responsibility of bar to ensure that their customers are of legal drinking age before serving them alcohol. People under the age of 21 are legally deemed incapable of making good decisions regarding alcohol use…like the decision not to drive after drinking at a bar.

While California’s law differ from other states with respect to civil liability, like Kentucky, a bar may be held criminally liable if they serve alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated person.”

According to California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a), “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Having said that, I’ve been practicing criminal law for 10 year and I’ve never seen California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a) charged. My guess is that it’s difficult to prove that a bar knew that someone was “obviously intoxicated,” as might have been the case with the bars that served Bailey.

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Should California Lower its BAC Limit?

Friday, March 29th, 2019

It’s not a novel question. Should California lower the blood alcohol content limit before someone can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI in the state?

Although a nationwide blood alcohol content limit was suggested prior, it was not until 2001 that the Department of Transportation said it would cut funding to states that did not maintain a blood alcohol content limit of 0.08 percent for DUI cases. As a result, all states adopted a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content limit. However, as of January 1st of this year, Utah became the first state to lower the blood alcohol content limit to 0.05 percent making it the strictest in the country.

A new bill introduced in California hopes to follow in Utah’s footsteps.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey), AB1713, otherwise known as Liam’s Law, would lower California’s BAC limit to 0.05 percent.

The bill was named in honor of a 15-month old who was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2016 when his aunt was pushing his stroller across Hawthorne Boulevard. Liam was the son of former mixed martial art fighter Marcus Kowal and his wife, Mishel Eder. Since then, both have been pushing for a lower BAC limit and Burke said that she had been influence by them.

“Every year, we see drunk drivers kill or injure our friends and loved ones because they thought they were OK to drive,” said Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who co-authored the bill and who also introduced a bill to increase the penalties for repeat DUI offenders. “Lowering the [blood alcohol content] limit to .05 percent has [been] shown to decrease DUI-related traffic fatalities by serving as a deterrent to folks driving drunk in the first place.”

Flora is referring to studies that suggest people begin to start feeling the effects of alcohol at 0.04 percent, and which have been used by the National Transportation Safety to justify its support of a 0.05 percent limit.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a male weighing 140 pounds would be at, or close to, a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content having had three drinks within an hour. A female weighing 120 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.08 percent blood alcohol content having had just two drinks within an hour. Regardless of gender, your blood alcohol content will not be as high if you weigh more. Conversely, your blood alcohol content will be higher if you weigh less.

On the other hand, male weighing 140 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.05 percent blood alcohol content having had two drinks within an hour. A female weighing 120 pounds would be at, or close to, 0.04 percent blood alcohol content having had just one drink within an hour.

Of course, these figures are approximate and depend on several factors which include, but are not limited to, whether the person ate, what they ate, what they drank, and how fast they drank it. But based on these approximate numbers, we can see that for both males and females, the difference between a 0.08 and a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content is about one less drink in an hour.

This raises another question: Is this law merely changing the definition of “drunk” to cast a wider net, thus creating more “criminals”?

“When (a bill) is first introduced, the 10,000-foot view is, ‘This is a law that’s tough on drunk driving. It should pass pretty easily,’” said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute. “But in reality, it’s not tough on drunk driving. It’s punishing moderate, social drinkers. It’s focusing traffic safety resources away from people who are the real problem toward people who aren’t the problem.”

Shedelbower went on to say that most DUI-related collisions are caused by drivers with BAC levels higher than 0.05 and repeat offenders, and that having a BAC level of 0.05 is less impairing than talking on a hands-free cell phone while driving.

Should the bill become law, many could be arrested after having a single drink and certainly when they’re not even drunk. I’m sorry, but I thought DUI laws were meant to protect against impaired driving. I’m not so sure that the hoped effect of the bill is worth the collateral consequence of arresting, charging, and convicting non-impaired drivers.  

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Maine Supreme Court Affirms DUI Conviction Even Though Science Suggests Defendant was Involuntarily Intoxicated

Monday, March 25th, 2019

Apparently, some high courts in this country don’t care whether science can show a person is innocent.

Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Court denied the appeal of a man who sought to introduce the testimony of a medical expert at trial that he suffers from auto-brewery syndrome.

Believe it or not, there is a rare medical condition that causes a person to “brew” alcohol within their body causing them to become intoxicated even though they haven’t had a sip of actual alcohol; hence the name, “auto-brewery syndrome.”

If you know how beer is made, you’ll know that yeast is added to grain extract (which is essentially sugar). When the yeast eats the sugar, it releases carbon dioxide (which creates the carbonation in beer) and alcohol (which gives beer its intoxicating effects). This process is known as fermentation. A person with auto-brewery syndrome produces unusually high levels of yeast in their gastrointestinal tract which, in turns, eats the sugars that a person ingests creating both carbon dioxide and alcohol in the person’s system even though they haven’t actually ingested any alcohol. In some instances of auto-brewery syndrome, the production of alcohol is so much that it can actually cause a person to become legally intoxicated!

I think you can see where I’m going with this. John Burbank claimed to be such a person afflicted with this rare disorder when he was arrested on suspicion of a DUI in 2016 because his blood alcohol content was 0.31 percent, almost four times the legal limit. In preparation for trial, Burbank sought to introduce an expert who would have testified that he suffered from this condition and that the condition caused him to become intoxicated through no fault of his own.

The trial court judge, however, denied the introduction of Burbank’s expert. And without the expert’s testimony, Burbank opted to plead no contest and filed an appeal challenging the denial of the expert’s testimony.

The Maine Supreme Court concluded that the trial court was correct in not allowing the expert to testify, thus affirming Burbank’s DUI conviction.

The Maine Supreme Court justified its conclusion by saying that, although the expert was a P.h.D. in toxicology and physiology, she was merely basing her opinions several articles regarding the condition, but that she, herself, had not worked directly with cases of auto-brewery syndrome or with Burbank and his condition.  Additionally, the court pointed out, that Burbank’s symptoms were different than those who were the subjects of the articles that the expert was relying on.

Bear in mind that auto-brewery syndrome is extremely rare with far less available research and knowledge about it than many other conditions.

The court went on to say that the denial of the expert’s testimony did not amount to a denial of Burbank’s constitutional right to present a defense because, according to the justices, the denial was a “reasonable restriction.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an unreasonable restriction to me. In law, for expert testimony to be admissible, it must be relevant and reliable. It is relevant because it could show that Burbank did not choose to become intoxicated when he drove. The law should not and, in most cases, does not punish people for things they cannot control. The law should only punish people who, through voluntariness and free will, engage in criminal conduct. And it is reliable because, while the expert may not have specific knowledge as to Burbank’s auto-brewery syndrome, it is nonetheless a legitimate and recognized medical condition, albeit with little research on it because of its rarity. People with rare conditions should not be disadvantaged and punished merely because their condition is rare, which is exactly what the Maine Supreme Court is doing.

What’s more, the concurring justice concluded that the defense of involuntary intoxication should not be allowed in DUI cases because “it may invite many ‘I didn’t know there was vodka in my orange juice’ or similar defenses to [DUI]…charges.”

So what?! So what if it invites future defenses? If it is a plausible defense to a crime for which the government can take away someone’s freedom, a defendant should be allowed to assert it. It’s their life on the line, not the judges. And pardon me, but I thought it was the jury’s job to determine if a defense is true or not. If the jury had heard the expert testimony, but still concluded that Burbank did drink and drive, then so be it. At least he was provided the opportunity to defend himself.  

What’s next? Courts not allowing an alibi defense because it could invite many “I was somewhere else” defenses?

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Canadian Immigration Crackdown on Foreign DUI Offenders

Friday, March 15th, 2019

As of December 18, 2018, Canada’s Bill C-46 became law, classifying impaired driving offenses as “serious criminality” rather than “simple” within the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

So how does the passing of Bill C-46 affect us stateside?

First, we should understand what the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of Canada is. This is “[a]n Act respecting immigration to Canada and the granting of refugee protection to persons who are displaced, persecuted or in danger.” As such, the act details under what circumstances immigration and refugee status is given to a non-Canadian citizen. Of those details existed Section 36 (1), which states that “a permanent resident or foreign national is deemed inadmissible to Canada if he or she is convicted of an offence that is considered serious criminality.”

Previously, serious criminality included offenses such as murder, aggravated sexual assault and drug trafficking. Now, with this new bill, impaired driving fits in this category. Even offenses such as wet reckless, which are reduced DUI offenses (see What are the Benefits (and Disadvantages) of a Wet Reckless?), are now considered in the serious criminality category.

Not only did the amendment change the categorization of DUIs, it also increased the penalty as well. What was a maximum term of imprisonment of five years is now 10 years. Canadian immigration officials are not pulling any punches.

Having a DUI offense on your record made it slightly inconvenient when travelling to Canada, but now, it can mean that it becomes extremely difficult for you to obtain a work visa in Canada or even to simply visit as a tourist (see Traveling to Canada after a California DUI Conviction).

Many of the same rules apply if you want to visit Canada after you have been convicted of a DUI with this new bill. However, one of the exceptions we mentioned in the previously noted post, is “deemed rehabilitation.” With the new bill, this method is no longer an option for those inadmissible to enter Canada due to a DUI conviction. Leaving only what is called “rehabilitation by application” as a method to entering Canada legally.

You are eligible to apply for rehabilitation if five years has passed from the completion of the sentence and are able to demonstrate that they are no longer a risk for criminal activity. Demonstrating that you are no longer a risk can come from showing a stable lifestyle, community ties, or proof that the offense was an isolated event. Simple, right? Well, the difficulty comes when we start counting the five years. Below are some of the most common sentences and the correct way to calculate the waiting period:

Suspended sentence: Five years from the date of sentencing.

Suspended sentence with a fine: Five years from the date the fine was paid. For any varying payment, the count will start from the date the final payment was paid.

Imprisonment without parole: Five years from the end of the term of imprisonment.

Imprisonment and parole: Five years from the completion of parole.

Probation: Probation is considered to be a part of the sentence. Thus, five years from the end of the probation period.

Driving prohibition: Five years from the end date of the prohibition.

You must also remember that because the new characterization of DUI is more serious than before, the immigration officials will be looking at your application with more scrutiny than they had before. The redefinition will undoubtedly make some of the applications more difficult to accept.

One saving grace is that currently this amendment is only being considered for offenses that happen after its passing. Therefore, if your offense happened before December 18, 2018 then you may be unaffected. For any permanent residents or foreign nationals already living in Canada, the amendment is not grounds for expulsion.

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Could DUI Fines be on the Upswing?

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

In a previous post, we covered potential costs of a DUI. That was based on our current understanding of California DUI law. However, Mississippi may be a trendsetter to legislatures throughout the country in increasing the fines and fees associated with a DUI arrest and conviction.

The Mississippi House of Representatives just passed House Bill 1445 which would essentially double the fine for DUI violations. The bill, which calls for the increase of the general fund amount for implied consent law violation, also known as driving under the influence, would, according to state assessment, increase the current fine of $243.50 to $493.50. The funding that is raised with the increase in fines would be used to support trauma care in the state.

During the House floor debate on the proposed law, Rep. Greg Haney (R-Gulfport) asked, “Are we doing this to just raise money or is it for safety?” Rep. Donnie Scoggin (R-Ellisville) admitted that it was a little of both.

Scoggin supported this answer with information and a little bit of history about the state’s trauma care system. The state of Mississippi’s statewide trauma care system was instituted in 1998 after the then-Governor Kirk Fordice and Lieutenant Governor Ronnie Musgrove received severe injuries in separate car crashes. According to the state’s Department of Health, as of Nov. 9th, 2018, there were 86 designated and participating hospitals in the Mississippi Trauma System of Care, with the University of Mississippi Medical Center the only Level 1 trauma hospital in the state.

Scoggin says that the fine wouldn’t fully fund trauma care in the state. However, the increase would bring it up to about three-quarters. He further stated that the original trauma funding bill from the mid-1990s actually listed the DUI fee at $500, but was reduced to its current $243.50.

A bill in 2017, had set the amount from the state’s general fund that could be used for the trauma system at $7,023,197 and reduced the overall spending for trauma care from $40 million to $20 million. Scoggin stated that raising the DUI fine for the purpose of supporting trauma care “…seems to be the right place to do this.”

In an attempt to further support the use of DUI fines for trauma care, Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) mentioned that crashes that are caused by impaired motorists are responsible for several of the trauma cases in the state.

According to the 2017 statistics by Mother Against Drunk Driving, there were 129 drunk driving deaths in the state of Mississippi and that 19 percent of traffic fatalities were connected to driving under the influence.

Although the lawmakers are attempting to tie drunk driving to the funding of trauma care, personally it seems to be contradictory. The raising of funds is important in making sure that severely injured have the best possible care in order to save lives and it makes sense that if raising a fine could help to support that, they should raise it where they can. However, something like a DUI fine is also imposed in order to dissuade people from breaking that law of driving under the influence. If, by raising the fine, it does what it was intended to do, namely to dissuade drivers from getting behind the wheel under the influence, then essentially, the state has less cases to collect the fine. Which in turn, would mean that the actual amount collect by fines is less than what was initially proposed or considered.

Perhaps it is designed to be a temporary remedy to the bigger issue of how to raise more money for the trauma center. Or perhaps the Mississippi legislature just sees an opportunity to collect from an easy target; DUI defendants.

In any event, if the bill is passed in the Senate and signed by the governor, then it would become effective July 1.

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