Claims against Drunk Drivers and the Bars That Served Them Alcohol

Some of the most outrageous cases that we see at Traywick & Traywick involve innocent drivers or pedestrians who are injured or even killed in car wrecks caused by drunk drivers. With as much graphic publicity as there has been through the last twenty years concerning the carnage that drunken driving is wreaking on our highways (our “Dieways”, according to the rather grisly public service announcements), there really is no excuse for people to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. In the case of intoxicated commercial operators who involve their tractor trailer or other commercial motor vehicle in a truck wreck, the moral outrage is even more profound.

The classic case involves a motorist whose vehicle is struck by another vehicle, which is operated by a drunk driver. Injured people and their families should keep in mind, however, that when a drunk driver is involved in a motor vehicle collision, the passengers in the vehicle operated by the drunk driver himself in all likelihood have a claim against the driver. Indeed, those circumstances can be quite favorable from a claimant’s perspective: he or she frequently will have multiple levels of insurance coverage available (the driver’s liability coverage, the driver’s underinsured motorist coverage, his own underinsured motorist coverage), not all of which an injured person in a different car will be able to access. Make sure your lawyer is a serious professional if these issues complex insurance are in play.

Society’s outrage is rightfully directed toward the drunk driver, but there is another bad actor in many cases: the drinking establishment that served the drunk driver too many drinks. South Carolina’s law is highly favorable to injured people who have claims against bars and restaurants who over-serve people. Most personal injury law in South Carolina is what is called common law: judicially created law that has developed over the centuries, most notably the law of negligence. Claims against a bar, however, (known as “dram shop” claims) are founded on something stronger: statutes enacted by the State of South Carolina. Specifically, South Carolina Code Section 61-6-2220 prohibits any drinking establishment from selling alcoholic drinks to “persons in an intoxicated condition”.

That there are statutes prohibiting bars to serve alcohol to drunk people is flat out huge for claimants, for three technical reasons.

First: evidence that the bar violated this statute (by serving a drunk person) constitutes negligence per se, meaning that the claimant does not have to prove anything further in terms of showing that the bar breached its duty to the public. In practice, this makes the lawyer’s job much easier in making the case which will ensure an appropriate recovery.

Second: evidence that the bar violated the statute by serving alcohol to a drunk person automatically entitles the plaintiff to an instruction to the jury, by the trial judge, that it can award punitive damages if it chooses. Leaving aside the technicalities, punitive damages can act to multiply the plaintiff’s recovery, over and above all other damages (medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, loss of the enjoyment of life, permanent impairment, etc.) Because of their potential to dramatically increase a personal injury plaintiff’s recovery, the very real threat of punitive damages in dram shop cases is a powerful tool in a skillful lawyer’s hands.

Third: a highly technical legal concept called “joint and several liability”, which is highly plaintiff-friendly, has been eliminated in South Carolina law by a tort reform package that the legislature passed in 2005. The gist of joint and several liability is that in a case where two defendants’ combined negligence cause a plaintiff to be injured, the plaintiff can recover the entire amount of the jury’s verdict against either or both of the defendants, at his sole discretion, no matter what degree of fault the jury assigns to that Defendant. So, under old joint and several, even a defendant to whom the jury assigns only 1% of fault, would potentially be on the hook for the entire verdict. Unfortunately, the 2005 tort reform package basically eliminated joint and several liability; fortunately, it specifically retained old joint and several in cases involving violation of South Carolina’s alcohol service laws. This, then, is the third advantage that the statutory basis of a dram shop claim bestows upon a plaintiff. Let’s see how it works in practice.

Suppose Drunk Guy X, while hanging out at Irresponsible Bar Y has been served four pitchers of beer and six shots of whiskey during a two hour period. When Drunk Guy X leaves Irresponsible Bar Y to drive home, his blood alcohol content (BAC) is .265%, more than three times the legal limit of .08%. Predictably, Drunk Guy X runs a red light, smashes into a vehicle lawfully passing through the intersection and, tragically, kills Innocent Teenager Z.

The parents of Innocent Teenager Z bring a wrongful death case against Drunk Guy X and Irresponsible Bar Y, which has $2,000,000 in insurance coverage. Having heard the evidence, the jury finds in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $2,000,000, and allocates 50% of the fault to each defendant. The problem is that Drunk Guy X only has the minimum limits of insurance coverage ($25,000), and has no money or other assets on which to execute the judgment of $1,000,000 against him (50% of the total verdict).

If the alcohol service laws were not in play, the plaintiff would be stuck collecting just the $25,000 in available coverage from Drunk Guy X, and $1,000,000 from Irresponsible Bar Y (reflecting its 50% allocation of the total fault for the $2,000,000 verdict). But because the tort reform statute preserved old joint and several liability principles in the dram shop setting, the plaintiffs can recover the $25,000 from Drunk Guy X, and recover from Irresponsible Bar Y the entire remainder of the verdict: $1,975,000. The difference for the bottom line, as can be seen, is $975,000, a rather pretty penny for the aggrieved family.

So dram shop cases are fairly technical, and quite favorable for claimants and plaintiffs represented by sophisticated, technically proficient counsel. Traywick & Traywick has extensive experience in this area, and either of our lawyers, Ben Traywick or David Traywick, is available to speak with you about your case at any time.


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