Appeals Court Says New Jersey Bars Not Immune from Drunk-Driver Injury Claims

A recently enacted New Jersey statute provides that drivers do not have legal claims for damages from accidents that occurred while they were drunk. In a recent case, a state appeals court acknowledged that a literal reading of this law suggests that all such claims are barred. Nonetheless, it held that the law does not bar a claim under the state’s Dram Shop Act by a drunk driver against a restaurant that negligently served him or her alcohol when he or she was visibly intoxicated, causing an accident.

This decision surprised many, since most people thought New Jersey bars were immune from such lawsuits because of the new statute. The final say on the subject will be from the New Jersey Supreme Court, which granted leave to appeal on July 12.

Voss v. Tranquilino

In November 2006, motorcyclist Frederick Voss collided with a vehicle driven by Kristoffe Tranquilino and owned by Jaime Tranquilino. A blood test revealed a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .196 for Voss, who pled guilty to a driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) charge. He sued the Tranquilinos and Tiffany’s Restaurant, claiming that before the accident he had been at Tiffany’s, where he was negligently served alcoholic drinks that substantially contributed to the accident and proximately caused his injuries.

The Tranquilinos and Tiffany’s moved to dismiss the lawsuit relying on the New Jersey law that bars claims for economic or noneconomic damages suffered in an accident by a driver who is convicted of or pleads guilty to DWI. The claim against the Tranquilinos was dismissed, but the trial court allowed the claim against Tiffany’s to proceed, citing the statutory purpose of keeping auto insurance premiums low.

In addition, the court noted that the contrary provisions of the New Jersey Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act (the Dram Shop Act) would be “eviscerated” if the other law relied on by the defendants barred dram-shop claims against liquor establishments.

Accordingly, the trial court permitted the claim against Tiffany’s Restaurant to proceed. Tiffany’s appealed and the appellate court agreed.

New Jersey Law Prohibiting Drunk-Driver Lawsuits

The appeals court reiterated its position in a prior case that the purpose of the legislative prohibition on drunk driver lawsuits for damages in their own drunk-driving accidents was to bring down automobile insurance premiums. The law was designed to reduce automobile-insurance fraud and, in turn, the cost of auto insurance. The governor claimed that the statute would save drivers $150 million a year in rate increases and make car insurance more available to city residents. The Commissioner of Banking and Insurance added that the new law prevented the termination of the policies of good drivers and eliminated expensive traffic-ticket surcharges.

New Jersey Dram Shop Act

Broadly, state dram-shop laws let people sue bars and restaurants for harm caused by their intoxicated customers, a concept with origins in the temperance movement. In its original form, the proposed bill for what is now known in New Jersey as the Dram Shop Act included provisions to immunize liquor establishments from all claims by drunk people who were negligently served, and by passengers in vehicles driven by someone the passenger knew to be drunk. A committee statement about the bill acknowledged that DWI accidents create a high cost or unavailability of liquor liability insurance.

Governor Kean, in his conditional veto message, stated that by eliminating licensed-alcoholic-beverage-server liability, the bill contravened Alcoholic Beverage Control policy and was both illogical and inconsistent. The legislature agreed that the proposed immunity provisions were too onerous to victims of negligence and therefore struck them prior to final passage.

The Dram Shop Act provides that a person who suffers personal injury as a result of negligent service of drinks by a licensed establishment may recover damages from the establishment only if the server was negligent. The court found it beyond question that the act created a claim for Voss against Tiffany’s that was not eliminated by conflicting implications of the more recently enacted statute.

The Dram Shop Act pre-existed by 10 years the law forbidding drunk drivers to sue for damages flowing from their own accidents, and the later law did not expressly repeal the earlier one. There is a strong presumption against implied repeal and the court found no basis to overcome that presumption, seeing no legislative intent for the newer law to affect dram-shop claims.

Public Policy

In Voss, the court found its conclusion bolstered by public-policy consideration. Having long recognized the senseless havoc and destruction caused by intoxicated drivers and the strong public policy in the immediate removal of drunk drivers from the highways. The opinion of the court found that discouraging drunk driving was surely a purpose of both statutes involved in this case.

The public awaits the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review of the decision with keen interest. Even drivers who feel their consumption of alcohol may make them partly at fault should contact experienced lawyers who can provide up-to-date advice on how to proceed against liquor establishments and protect the drivers’ interests.

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