Should drunk drivers be allowed to profit from the accidents they cause? If you frame the question that way, the answer is obvious: no. That’s how many people online seem to have understood a case recently decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court, leaving them bewildered by the court’s opinion allowing drunk drivers to sue the establishments that served them alcohol.

But what if we phrase the question as: should bars and restaurants that negligently serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated people be responsible for the full scope of damage they cause? Then the answer is, of course, yes.

To solve this riddle, let’s unpack the facts of Voss v. Tranquilino, 2011 N.J. LEXIS 621, at *1–2 (June 1, 2011):

On November 9, 2006, plaintiff Frederick Voss was injured when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle operated by defendant Kristoffe Tranquilino and owned by defendant Jaime Tranquilino. Voss alleged that prior to the accident he was a patron at Tiffany’s Restaurant and was negligently served alcoholic beverages that contributed to the accident and caused his injuries. Voss’s blood alcohol content after the accident was .196, nearly two and one-half times the legal limit of .08 percent. Voss was charged with DWI and subsequently pled guilty.

Voss sued Tiffany’s.

After a drunk driving accident, there are two main legal questions. First, drunk driving is illegal, so there is no question that the drunk driver was negligent, but there is a question as to whether the drunk driving actually caused the accident. It’s never laudable to drive while intoxicated, but if an intoxicated individual is operating their vehicle and a perfectly safe and reasonable manner when a runaway garbage truck with faulty brakes smashes into them, that certainly isn’t their fault.

Second, who was responsible for the drunk driver getting on the road? It’s unreasonable to hand your car keys over to a visibly intoxicated individual, giving rise to negligent entrustment claims. It is similarly unreasonable and illegal for a business to serve a visibly intoxicated patron, not least because that patron might leave the bar and, in their inebriated and compromised state, think themselves fit to drive. That’s where “dram shop” claims come in, when someone injured in a drunk driving accident — whether the drunk driver or a victim of the accident caused by a drunk driver — claims that it was negligent for the business to continue serving alcohol to that person when they were clearly intoxicated.

New Jersey has a special law for drunk driving accidents, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), which states that a driver who is convicted of or pleads guilty to DWI in connection with an accident “shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.”

It seems unambiguous, but also a bit curious, since there’s a diametrically opposed law, the Dram Shop Act, which specifically provides that “[a] person who sustains personal injury or property damage as a result of the negligent service of alcoholic beverages by a licensed alcoholic beverage server may recover damages from a licensed alcoholic beverage server” if the server was negligent (i.e. served a visibly intoxicated person), the injury was proximately caused by the negligent service of alcoholic beverages, and the injury was a foreseeable consequence of the negligent service. Voss v. Tranquilino, 413 N.J. Super. 82, 88, 992 A.2d 829, 833 (App. Div. 2010)(quoting N.J.S.A. 2A:22A-5(a)).

So which law wins? In the end, all three New Jersey courts, from the trial court to the Supreme Court, held that the Dram Shop Act won, because the acts had different purposes:

An intoxicated person is deterred from driving drunk by losing the right to sue under Title 39 for insurance coverage for his injuries. On the other hand, permitting an injured drunk driver to file an action against a liquor establishment and its servers for serving a visibly intoxicated patron similarly advances the goal of deterring drunk driving. In allowing the latter form of action to proceed, rather than barring it ab initio by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), we can be assured that the application of established principles of comparative negligence will apportion properly responsibility for damages as between dram shop parties and the injured drunk driver. See N.J.S.A. 2A:22A-6; N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1.

Voss v. Tranquilino, 2011 N.J. LEXIS 621, at *8 (June 1, 2011). It’s hard to argue with the core of the Voss court’s reasoning; if the New Jersey Assembly wanted to override the Dram Shop Act, it would have said so, but it didn’t.

Truth is, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion does more for the indirect and direct victims of drunk driving than for drunk drivers. Usually, the first thing that happens to drunk driver after an accident is that they rack up an enormous medical bill. If the drunk driver doesn’t have adequate health insurance (which is common), then the cost of that medical is borne by taxpayers and by the hospital and healthcare providers that treated the drunk driver. Is that fair? Why should the state or a hospital bear any of a cost caused, in part, by a liquor seller’s negligence?

The second thing that happens to a drunk driver (after they’re arrested) is that they’re sued. Assuming they have auto insurance, they likely don’t have much of it — New Jersey’s “basic” minimum coverage policy does not have any liability coverage — and frequently not enough to compensate their victims for their full injuries and medical care.

That can leave the innocent victim uncompensated for some, maybe most, of their injuries, even after their own Dram Shop Act claim against the restaurant. Allowing drunk drivers to sue the establishment that served them gives them access to more insurance proceeds, and thus in turn gives the drunk driving victims more access to insurance proceeds.

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