The Georgia Supreme Court has found that a convenience store can be held liable for a fatal highway accident that took place after the driver of a motor vehicle purchased a 12-pack of beer. Overturning a lower court, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia can be held liable for selling beer to a man who was noticeably intoxicated when he made the purchase. About four hours later the man, Billy Joe Grundell, was in a collision with a van. Grundell and five other people were killed in the crash.
The families of those injured sued the convenience store under the Georgia Dram Shop Act, but the trial court awarded summary judgment to the store on grounds the beer was not sold for consumption on premises. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the Dram Shop Act applies when a convenience store sells closed or packaged containers of alcohol not intended for consumption on the premises to a noticeably intoxicated adult.
It was alleged in the suit that Grundell was noticeably intoxicated when he entered the store and purchased a 12-pack of beer. Grundell and his passenger drove off and consumed the beer. Later, Grundell’s vehicle crossed the centerline of a highway and ran head-on into a van going the opposite way. At that time, Grundell’s blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit.
Georgia’s Dram Shop Act says that a person who sells, furnishes or serves alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person of lawful drinking age shall not be liable for injury, death or damage that person causes because of their intoxication. However, the law also says a person who knowingly sells alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated person, knowing that such person will soon be driving, may become liable. The High Court said that because the statute uses the terms “sells, furnishes or serves” alcohol in the disjunctive, it is clear that it was intended to encompass the sale of an alcoholic beverage at places other than the proverbial dram shop.
The High Court criticized the Court of Appeals for refusing to apply the statute to such sales. The Lower Court had said it did so because, in its view, doing so “would lead to wholly impracticable results.” But the Supreme Court said that the upshot of the Court of Appeals’ decision is that the dram shop act is to be applied only where an alcoholic beverage is served or poured on premises to an adult. The High Court wrote:
That would mean that a convenience store cannot be held liable for selling closed or packaged alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated adult under any set of circumstances. We cannot accept this interpretation of the statute.
Exprezit! had argued that, like airlines, convenience stores have no way of knowing if their customers will soon be driving a motor vehicle. The store also contended that unlike taverns, bars and restaurants, where customers drink on the premises, convenience stores are limited in their ability to discern whether their customers are noticeably intoxicated. But Georgia’s High Court did not buy that argument, finding that a convenience store will often have an opportunity to observe how the customer arrived and will depart and thus may know if a customer will soon be driving a motor vehicle. Also, the Court said, the convenience store seller has an opportunity to observe if the customer appears to be noticeably intoxicated. “This is not to say that the dram shop act cannot be applied to sales made by convenience stores as a matter of law. Each case must rise or fall on its own facts,” the High Court said.
Source: Insurance Journal
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