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Hawaii Supreme Court upholds ruling in case of fatal drunk driving accident

State Court

By William Sassani | Dec 5, 2019

Law2

HONOLULU (Legal Newsline) – The Hawaii Supreme Court has upheld a 2017 ruling from the state's Intermediate Court of Appeals that determined that someone who is intoxicated can be considered an innocent third party.

Defendant and restaurant operator Zelo’s Inc., doing business as Sushi & Blues, raised three points to the court. First, “whether a party asserting a dram shop clause of action must establish its ‘standing as an ‘innocent third party’ within the protected class of individuals,” the ruling states. 

Second, whether Kristerpher Kuahiwinui was considered to be an innocent third party and third, whether  the Intermediate Court of Appeals was mistaken in applying that status to Kristerpher Kuahiwinui, the Supreme Court was tasked with deciding.

The Hawaii Supreme Court, in its 16-page ruling issued Nov. 21, ultimately decided to uphold the ruling of the Intermediate Court of Appeals. However, the ruling stated that there were “genuine issues of material fact as to whether Kristerpher’s contributory negligence exceeded the negligence of Zelo’s.”

In its 22-page ruling, now-retired Chief Judge Craig Nakamura wrote for the Intermediate Court of Appeals “that a person who is intoxicated is not automatically excluded from the class of innocent third parties entitled to pursue a dram shop cause of action.” 

What needed to be determined was whether Kristerpher Kuahiwinui was an actual innocent third party in contributing to the intoxication of his cousin, Solomon Kuahiwinui. 

Nakamura also said that the legal precedent comes from the Supreme Court of Hawaii, which defines a “common law dram shop negligence [cause of] action.” It says a “liquor licensee has a duty not to serve alcohol to a person it knows or reasonably should know is under the influence of alcohol," according to the ruling. Innocent third parties are people who fall under the protection of this duty.  

“Thus, an innocent third party injured by a drunk driver has a negligence cause of action against a liquor licensee,” who serves alcohol to someone who they knew to be intoxicated.

Kristerpher Kuahiwinui was 19 and Solomon Kuahiwinui was 25 at the time of the incident in 2006. Both were riding in a borrowed car with a third man, Christopher Ferguson, 35. Solomon Kuahiwinui was driving the car when it went through a guardrail, rolled down an embankment and into the Hanalei River. Kristerpher Kuahiwinui and Ferguson drowned in the accident, while Solomon Kuahiwinui survived. All three had blood alcohol levels above the limit for intoxicated driving.

The estates of Kuahiwinui and Ferguson sued Zelo’s over allegations it was negligent because it had served alcohol to the men and let them stay in the restaurant even though all three were visibly intoxicated. The men had also been drinking and smoking marijuana before going to the restaurant to eat dinner. The plaintiffs also alleged that Zelo’s either knew or should have known that Kristerpher Kuahiwinui was 19 and under the legal drinking age limit.

Zelo’s requested a summary judgment, saying that Kristerpher Kuahiwinui was not an innocent third party because he was already intoxicated when he died. The plaintiffs opposed Zelo’s motion. The Circuit Court of the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Zelo’s, and the plaintiffs appealed. The ruling was filed on Dec. 13, 2017. Afterward, Zelo’s petitioned the Hawaii Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.

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