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Bar Owner Not Liable for Customer’s Drunk Driving Death

Is a bar owner liable for the death of a customer who drinks to excess and kills himself in a subsequent automobile accident? In Georgia, the answer is usually “no.” The Georgia Supreme Court recently elaborated on this principle in rejecting a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the wife of a man who died precisely in this manner.

Dion v. Y.S.G. Enterprises, Inc.

In September 2011, a man entered a sports bar at around 2:30 in the afternoon. He proceeded to drink for the next eight hours, leaving the bar just before 11 p.m. He was visibly intoxicated and a bar employee unsuccessfully attempted to take the man’s car keys. After leaving the bar, the man got into a single-car accident and died. His reported blood-alcohol level at the time of his death was .282, more than three times the legal limit.

The deceased man’s wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sports bar’s owner. She argued the bar employees decision to continue serving her intoxicated husband was the proximate cause of his death. Netwon County Superior Court dismissed her complaint. In a decision issued on November 17, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the dismissal.

Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines, writing for the Supreme Court, said Georgia law does not recognize this type of wrongful death lawsuit. Under the common law, a person who purchases and consumes alcohol is presumed responsible for any resulting injuries, including death. The seller or furnisher of alcohol is not considered negligent.

The Georgia legislature codified and modified the common law rule through a what is known as the Dram Shop Act. This act reaffirms that an intoxicated person is liable for his own injuries. But it does make an exception: a bar that “willfully” serves a minor or a person who is in a “state of noticeable intoxication” may be liable if the server knows that person “will soon be driving a motor vehicle.”

As Justice Hines noted, the exception for serving minors did not apply in this case, as the deceased was of legal drinking age. And even though he was in a “state of noticeable intoxication,” the wife could still not pursue a wrongful death lawsuit on that basis alone. A wrongful death lawsuit presumes the existence of a tort claim by the deceased. Here, the deceased could not recover because his own act of drinking was still the proximate cause of his death.

The deceased’s wife nonetheless attempted to argue that the Dram Shop Act violated the Georgia Constitution. She said the legislature improperly restricted the jurisdiction of the courts, which violated the principle of “separation of powers” mandated in the Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Hines said the legislature “simply enacted legislation” that changed the common law, which does not implicate separation of powers. Furthermore, the legislature reaffirmed an existing common law rule regarding a person’s liability for consuming alcohol. Absent the Dram Shop Act, the wife would still lack a cause of action against the bar owner.