NJ Appellate Court: Liquor Stores Not Protected Against Lawsuits by Drunk Drivers following DWI Injury Accidents

A recent New Jersey appellate court ruling has opened the door to lawsuits from obviously intoxicated customers who purchase liquor prior to being involved in a DWI-related injury accident. The ruling essentially states that liquor establishments, such as beer and wine shops, are not protected under the same New Jersey statutes that prevent third parties from being sued by drivers found to be at fault in a car accident as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol.

The court explained its decision stating that drivers who endanger public safety by driving while intoxicated should be penalized by being stripped of their right to suing third parties, however those owners of stores licensed for the sale of alcohol have a legal obligation to avoid serving drunken customers and then allowing them to go forth and travel New Jersey roadways (Voss v. Tranquilino, No. A-5431-08T1).

It was suggested that the state legislature was likely wrong to have imagined that the instances of drunk driving on Garden State roads would have been reduced by essentially “immunizing” beer-, wine- and liquor-sales establishments from lawsuits filed by drivers arrested for DWI-related traffic offenses.

This recent ruling affirmed the right of Frederick Voss, a cyclist injured in an accident in Toms River back in 2006, to pursue this claim against Tiffany’s Restaurant, which had served him while drunk thus contributing to the accident. Voss reportedly pleaded guilty to DWI as a result of that accident.

Tiffany’s argued it was immune from suit and sought summary judgment. Ocean County Superior Court Judge John Peterson denied the motion and the appeals court affirmed.

The 1997 anti-drunken driving amendments to motor vehicle insurance law, at N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), say a driver convicted of DWI in connection with an accident “shall have no cause of action for his or her injuries.”

But this does not trump the Dram Shop Act, adopted 10 years prior, which protects the rights of people who suffer loss as a result of the negligent service of alcoholic beverages by licensed servers, the court explained. An interesting point here is that while typical suits against dram shops are usually brought by the victim of a drunk driver, the Dram Shop Law itself does not make a distinction between the victim or perpetrator of the accident.

The Voss decision is reportedly the first by a state appeals court to specifically deprive licensed premises of immunity in such cases. Regardless, the attorney for Tiffany’s said that his client may appeal to the Supreme Court.

Drunken Drivers May Sue Dram Shops That Served Them Prior to Accidents, Law.com, April 30, 2010