New Jersey Court May Prevent Drunk Drivers From Suing Bars

July 30, 2010

The scenario: a drunken driver slams into another motorist, suffering serious injuries. The other driver is unhurt. The drunken driver sues the bar that served him, arguing it should be the one liable for his drunken state. That's actually the law in most states, but New Jersey is considering whether that's how it should be.

A case before the New Jersey Supreme Court is seeking to determine if an insurance law provision, which bars drivers convicted of driving drunk from bringing personal injury claims against other motorists, overrides the dram shop act. The dram shop act, or Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act, offers a way for those injured as a result of "negligent service of alcoholic beverages by a licensed alcoholic beverage server" to get compensation for their suffering.

The reason it's all come to a head in the Supreme Court is due to an Appellate Division ruling that the insurance law provision does not override the dram shop act. Specifically, the case of Voss v. Tranquilino, where Voss, with a blood-alcohol content of 0.196, crashed his motorcycle into Tranquilino's car. Voss then sued Tiffany's Restaurant, the establishment that served him the alcohol, and Tiffany's moved to dimiss the case arguing it was barred by the insurance statute.

There's a strong historical policy argument for dram shop laws, namely: holding bars accountable for serving patrons too much alcohol. Most states make it illegal to serve a patron who is visibly intoxicated. While that may be a fine line to surf as a bar owner, very few people can pull off a 0.196 BAC with a sober face.

The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling is likely to side with the drunk driver in this case, based on that very policy reason. There's no firm date set yet for the decision, but the next oral argument date before the court is September 13-14, followed by another the 27-28. Even after the argument is heard, it could be weeks or months before a decision is issued.

[, New Jersey Supreme Court]

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