New Jersey Supreme Court Allows Convicted Drunk Drivers To Sue The Bars And Restaurants That Served Them Alcohol

New Jersey Supreme Court Allows Convicted Drunk Drivers To Sue The Bars And Restaurants That Served Them Alcohol

On June 1, 2011, in Voss v. Tranquilino, No. A-110-09 (N.J. June 1, 2011), the New Jersey Supreme Court, affirming the judgment of New Jersey's Appellate Division, held, in a per curiam opinion from which two Justices dissented, that a driver of a motor vehicle who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, driving while intoxicated ("DWI"), N.J.S.A. § 39:4-50(a), may recover damages under the New Jersey Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act, N.J.S.A. §§ 2A:22A-1 - 2A:22A-7 (the "New Jersey Dram Shop Act" or the "Dram Shop Act"), from a bar or restaurant that served him alcoholic beverages when he was visibly intoxicated before the motor vehicle collision.  For this author's June 9, 2010 post on the New Jersey's Appellate Division's decision in Voss which the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld, see here.

New Jersey's court of last resort's decision confirms that it is crucial for bars, restaurants, and other liquor licensees in New Jersey to adopt, and to train their workers on, responsible policies for the service of alcohol to customers.

In Voss, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a bar or restaurant may be liable to a convicted drunk driver to whom that establishment had served alcoholic beverages while the driver was visibly intoxicated, even though a 1997 anti-drunk-driving amendment to the motor vehicle insurance law, codified as N.J.S.A. § 39:6A-4.5, declares that a person convicted of DWI "shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of" the motor vehicle collision.

In Voss, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that, were it to construe the 1997 amendment to the motor vehicle insurance law to prohibit convicted drunk drivers from suing dram shops that served them alcohol when they were visibly intoxicated, the 1997 amendment would implicitly repeal that portion of the New Jersey Dram Shop Act stating that "a person who sustains personal injury or property damage as a result of the negligent service of alcoholic beverages by a licensed alcoholic beverage server may recover damages from a licensed alcoholic beverage server" if "the server served a visibly intoxicated person."  N.J.S.A. § 2A:22-A-5(a), 2A:22-A-5(b).  The Voss Court observed that "There is a strong presumption against repealing statutory provisions by implication."   According to the Court, the legislative history of the 1997 act containing N.J.S.A. § 39:6A-4.5 did not suffice to overcome that powerful presumption.

Rather, in Voss, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that "the Legislature's overriding objective when enacting the [1997] legislation that contained N.J.S.A. [§] 39:6A-4.5(b) was to effect automobile insurance reform," and that "[n]owhere in that [act's] legislative history was there any suggestion that the statute would affect liability under the Dram Shop Act."

New Jersey's highest court's decision allows Frederick Voss, a motorcyclist injured in a motor vehicle collision in Toms River in 2006, to pursue a claim that Tiffany's Restaurant served alcohol to Voss while he was was visibly intoxicated, contributing to the collision.  Voss pled guilty to driving while intoxicated.

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