N.J. SC: Lawsuits against bars can deter drunk driving

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 7, 2011, 3:42pm

TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a ruling last week, upheld an appellate court's decision to permit persons convicted of a DUI offense to sue restaurants for injuries they cause to themselves.

The case stems from a 2006 incident in which Fredrick Voss crashed his motorcycle into a car and injured himself.

His blood alcohol level was nearly two-and-a-half times the legal limit. He pled guilty to a DWI charge but later filed suit against Tiffany's Restaurant in Toms River under the state's Dram Shop Act.

The appellate court explained that the act provides the exclusive civil remedy for injuries resulting from the negligent service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person by a liquor licensee.

The court also looked at N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), which was adopted several years after the Dram Shop Act. It held that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) does not bar a Dram Shop claim because (1) the purpose of the statute is to reduce automobile insurance premiums and its scope should be limited to losses that are subject to coverage under Title 39; (2) an interpretation barring Dram Shop claims would unjustifiably constitute repeal by implication of a portion of the Dram Shop Act; and (3) immunizing liquor licensees from liability in such circumstances would be inimical to the State''s policy of curbing drunk driving.

The state's high court, in its June 1 per curiam opinion, said unless there is clear and compelling evidence of legislative intent, "there is a strong presumption against repealing statutory provisions by implication."

"Here, it is far from clear that by adopting N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the Legislature meant to engage in an implied repeal of the contrary provisions and policy set forth in the Dram Shop Act. The Legislature's overriding objection when enacting the legislation that contained N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was to effect automobile insurance reform, and there is no evidence that the specific bar to litigation set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was intended to have impact beyond the motor vehicle accident and insurance setting that Title 39 addresses," the Court wrote.

Furthermore, it wrote, the bar to litigation in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) can coexist with the Dram Shop Act's deterrence and liability-imposing principles.

"An intoxicated person is deterred from driving drunk by losing the right to sue under Title 39 for insurance coverage for his injuries. On the other hand, permitting an injured drunk driver to file an action against a liquor establishment and its servers for serving a visibly intoxicated patron similarly advances the goal of deterring drunk driving," the Court wrote.

"In allowing the latter form of action to proceed, rather than barring it by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the application of established principles of comparative negligence will apportion properly the responsibility for damages as between dram shop parties and the injured driver."

Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, or NJLRA, issued a statement Monday in response to the Court's decision:

"The Court has once again defied the will of the Legislature to the detriment of business and common sense in New Jersey. The Legislature sought, in plain language, to bar suits against bars and restaurants by intoxicated patrons under the motor vehicle laws of this state. Today drunk drivers can minimize personal responsibility for their actions and sue the restaurateurs of New Jersey for serving them drinks."

He added, "Common sense tells us that pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated shouldn't legally transfer responsibility from one party to another. Adults who choose to break the law and endanger others should not have the ability to use our civil court system to collect monetary damages at the expense of New Jersey's business community."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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