Montana justices uphold Dram Shop provision

Chris Rizo Jan. 4, 2010, 1:54pm

John Warner

HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline)-The six months time limit for anyone planning to sue a Montana bar over a drunken driving crash is legal, a divided state Supreme Court ruled.

Montana state law requires that someone planning to sue a bar over liability in a drunken driving crash to notify that bar within 180 days of the crash.

In a 4-3 ruling late last month, the state high court ruled that the limit was constitutional.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed over the time-limit provision in Montana's Dram Shop Act. The lawsuit was filed by Cary and Terra Rohlfs against Klemenhagen LLC, doing business as the Stumble Inn in Victor, Montana.

They sued after Cary Rohlfs was seriously injured when a drunken driver hit him in 2006. The driver, Joseph Warren, had been drinking for much of the day of the crash at the Stumble Inn.

The couple sued the bar more than a year after the crash. At trial, the lawsuit was dismissed because the bar was not notified of the lawsuit within the 180 days required.

The Rohlfs appealed the district court ruling, arguing that the law was special legislation designed to protect bar owners.

The state Supreme Court majority disagreed, saying it was not their place to second-guess the state Legislature.

"In an action under the Dram Shop Act, the plaintiff has the burden of proof," the court ruled. "Nevertheless, the plaintiff has immediate knowledge of the incident and the ability to begin an investigation and preserve evidence. On the other hand, the defendant most likely was not present at the incident and may not know an incident occurred."

Justice John Warner, writing for the majority, added: "There is a rational basis for the 180-day notice requirement."

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