We are discussing an appellate court decision from Pennsylvania about dram shop liability. The court declined to find a golf club liable for a patron's drunk driving accident, a ruling that illustrates a strict adherence to the specifics of the dram shop law. Both New York and Pennsylvania only hold the establishment liable if the patron was obviously intoxicated.
New York law states that the bar or restaurant must "cause or contribute to" the patron's intoxication for liability to attach. Legislators apparently wanted to make it crystal clear that the last bar to serve the patron would not necessarily be the only one liable.
But back to our Pennsylvania accident. The driver had been drinking at the golf course throughout the day before getting behind the wheel. On the highway, his car crossed into oncoming traffic and slammed into a motorcycle. The motorcycle driver and passenger were both killed. Their families filed wrongful death claims naming both the driver and the golf club as defendants. The driver also faced criminal charges.
Testimony at the civil trial and the criminal trial established that the accident was not caused by the driver's intoxication. Rather, the driver had reached over to read a text on his cellphone when his car crossed the centerline. An accident reconstruction expert concluded that distracted driving, not drunkenness, was responsible for the crash.
Witnesses also told the court that the driver was not visibly intoxicated while he was at the golf club. Remember, the statute requires that the patron be visibly intoxicated -- blood alcohol concentration is not the same thing. In this case, in fact, the driver's BAC was 0.166 percent, more than twice the legal limit. Legally drunk, yes, but not obviously drunk.
As tragic as the accident was, the trial court and the appellate court did not cut the plaintiff any slack when it came to proving that the golf club was liable under the dram shop act.
Source: The Pennsylvania Record, "Court affirms ruling that clears golf course of liability in fatal DUI crash," Jim Boyle, June 12, 2014