ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - The Georgia Supreme Court last week ruled that the state's dram shop statute does apply when a convenience store sells closed or packaged containers of alcohol to a noticeably intoxicated adult.
The high court reversed the decision of the state Court of Appeals in Flores v. Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia LLC. The appeals court had asked the Court to review its ruling.
This case stems from a motor vehicle collision in which six people were killed and several were injured.
About four hours before the collision, the driver of one of the vehicles, Billy Joe Grundell, drove with a passenger to a convenience store. Grundell was noticeably intoxicated when he entered the store and purchased a 12-pack of beer.
Grundell and his passenger drove off and consumed the beer. Later, Grundell crossed the centerline of a highway and ran head-on into a van going the opposite way.
At the time, Grundell's blood alcohol concentration was 0.181 grams per 100 milliliters, twice the legal limit.
The injured passengers brought suit under the dram shop statute against the convenience store, which was owned or operated by Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia LLC.
Under the dram shop act, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, rather than the sale or furnishing or serving of such beverages, is the "proximate cause" of any injury, including death and property damage, inflicted by an intoxicated person upon himself or upon another person.
Also under the act, a person who sells, furnishes or serves alcoholic beverages to a person of lawful drinking age shall not thereby become liable for injury, death or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such person, including injury or death to other persons.
However, under the statute, a person who "willfully, knowingly and unlawfully" sells, furnishes or serves alcoholic beverages to a person who is not of lawful drinking age, knowing that such person will soon be driving a motor vehicle, or who knowingly sells, furnishes or serves alcoholic beverages to a person who is in a state of "noticeable intoxication," knowing that such person will soon be driving a motor vehicle, may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such minor or person when the sale, furnishing or serving is the proximate cause of such injury or damage.
The trial court awarded summary judgment to Exprezit! and the appeals court affirmed, holding that the statute does not apply under any circumstances to the sale of closed or packaged alcoholic beverages not intended for consumption on the premises.
The Supreme Court said because the statute uses the terms "sells, furnishes or serves" alcohol in the disjunctive, it is clear that it was intended to encompass the sale of an alcoholic beverage at places other than the proverbial dram shop.
Justice Hugh P. Thompson authored the Court's 10-page majority opinion.
The Court said of the lower court's ruling, "The upshot of the Court of Appeals' decision is that the dram shop act is to be applied only where an alcoholic beverage is served or poured on premises to an adult.
"That would mean that a convenience store cannot be held liable for selling closed or packaged alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated adult under any set of circumstances.
"We cannot accept this interpretation of the statute," it said.
While the act makes it clear that it is the consumption of alcohol -- not the selling or furnishing -- that leads to injuries, it goes on to create two exceptions to the rule for liability purposes, the Court pointed out.
"Liability is not imposed under either one of these exceptions, however, unless the furnishing or serving of the alcoholic beverage is the proximate cause of injury," it said.
"We find these statutory requirements to be straightforward and under the plain language of the statute are equally applicable to convenience stores and traditional dram shops."
Still, Exprezit! argued that convenience stores have no way of knowing if their customers will soon be driving a motor vehicle.
It also contended that unlike taverns, bars and restaurants, where customers consume alcoholic beverages on the premises, convenience stores are limited in their ability to discern whether their customers are noticeably intoxicated.
The Court disagreed.
"When a convenience store sells alcoholic beverages to a customer it will often have an opportunity to observe how the customer arrived and, conversely, the manner in which he will depart. Thus, a convenience store may very well know if a customer will soon be driving a motor vehicle," it wrote.
"Moreover, the convenience store seller does have an opportunity to observe the customer to determine if he appears to be noticeably intoxicated."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at email@example.com.