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A drunk driver may not be entirely to blame in a fatal crash

Anyone who is injured or who loses a loved one in a drunk driving accident should know about California’s dram shop laws. Dram shop laws and “social host” laws allow a court to find a third party liable in an alcohol-related accident. Dram shop laws apply to restaurants, bars and other commercial establishments, while social host laws apply to private residents. More than half of the states have adopted some kind of dram shop liability statute, but the particulars differ from state to state.

We bring this up after coming across a decision from a Pennsylvania court of appeals. In that case, the driver had been playing golf at a club and had consumed a few beers over the course of the day. Shortly after leaving the club, he reached for his cellphone to read a text message; his vehicle crossed into oncoming traffic and struck a motorcycle, killing both people on the motorcycle.

Pennsylvania’s dram shop law is stricter than California’s. The victims’ estates sued both the driver and the club for damages, and both the driver and the club faced criminal charges. For the club, being civilly liable would have meant paying money damages. A criminal conviction could have meant a suspension or revocation of the club’s liquor license.

For the plaintiffs, a guilty verdict would afford some peace of mind but would not guarantee that either the driver or the club would have to pay damages. Only a civil trial could determine that.

The driver pleaded guilty to charges of homicide by vehicle, DUI and reckless driving. He was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. In the civil trial, the jury found that the driver’s own negligence caused the crash. The club was off the hook.

Why? And more to the point, could that happen in California? We’ll explain in our next post.

Sources: 

The Pennsylvania Record, “Court affirms ruling that clears golf course of liability in fatal DUI crash,” Jim Boyle, June 12, 2014

West’s Ann.Cal.Bus. & Prof.Code § 25602, Sales to drunkard or intoxicated person; offense; civil liability, via Westlaw

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