A new case was just heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and is now being considered.
The case had to do with the Massachusetts term of a Dram Shop, which means a Tavern, Bar or Pub owner or any place of business serving alcoholic beverages to the public as defined in the licensing act.
This case Panagakos v. Walsh (SJC No. 08385), involves the third party suit of a tavern owner, against companions of an under aged drunk, who submitted false credentials to the Dram Shop owner, and the companions had encouraged the drunks imbibing of alcohol. They were also alleged to have failed to leave the drunk in a “safe place” after the drunk left the tavern and was killed by a car as he walked on the highway.
The case was tried in the Superior Court and was dismissed.
The Appeals Court ruled that the Superior Court was wrong and that the companions could be sued for contributing to the wrongful death.
The defense argued the social companions should not be liable for the conduct of the victim and to require them to see to his safety on the ground that there was no legal duty so to do.
Another defense attorney argued that holding companions liable would open the floodgate of lawsuits involving drinking companions over injuries for a companion’s failure to deliver the other home safely.
Justices of the Court in response of arguments of counsel for the parties posed questions going either way.
Can you drop off a companion in any old place?
Where the intoxicated person is the victim should the companion be liable?
Defense counsel argued that a 1991 case Hamilton v. Ganias held that an adult’s voluntary consumption of alcohol forecloses the existence of any duty owed to him by those who either supply him with or allow him to consume alcohol. (note that the victim in our case was under aged for drinking, but an adult under the law; he was 18)
You can readily see that this case could open the doors to imputing duty on companions not only in alcohol related matters, but to other areas of danger.
How about MA’s getting together after a dojo training session, going to a tough neighborhood, where they are harassed by street thugs, and then go into a tavern for a beer or two.
Do they have to band together to insure each other’s safe keeping until out of range of the street yegs?
The rest of the story in our case is that the companions were 20 years old and also used fake ID’s and misrepresented their ages as over 21.
The companions had obtained alcohol for the victim before, during and after their visit to the bar.
Victim was intoxicated and unable to control his actions.
After the group had left the bar, the victim was killed while walking on a high-speed highway in an intoxicated state about two miles from where the companions had left him.
The bar owner was found guilty in a criminal hearing for furnishing alcohol to the underage decedent and was incarcerated for 30 days.
We know of cases where LEO’s have been found liable by pulling over cars and allowing the intoxicated person to walk home and the driver is killed or injured.
This case had logical arguments on both sides. The case is only worth so many dollars, but the parties are increased.
Do we open the floodgates to litigation creating new liability?
Today booze, tomorrow MA’s in the dojo having to get students home safely?
The Court will decide this, and it could be interesting.