A Tennessee trial court and appellate court each concluded that the family of man killed when a drunk driver plowed into his apartment with her vehicle could not pursue a liability claim against the bar where the woman drank on the night of the accident. Tennessee law imposes clear restrictions on the potential liability of sellers of alcohol. Because the woman who caused the accident received her alcohol as a result of drinks ordered by, and served to, other bar patrons, and did not order, purchase or receive any drinks directly from bar staff, the establishment could not be held liable.
In March 2011, Ms. Langworthy crashed her vehicle into the apartment of Mr. Smith, killing him. Langworthy had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit at the time of the accident. Smith’s family sued the driver and the bar at which she was drinking that night. After the accumulation of several affidavits, the bar moved for summary judgment. The bar claimed that the drinks the woman consumed inside the bar were all requested, purchased and received by male companions or acquaintances and that the bar’s employees never served Langworthy.
The trial court sided with the bar, granting summary judgment. The court determined that the uncontested evidence showed that Langworthy did not order or pay for alcohol at the bar and the bar’s staff did not directly provide drinks to her.
On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals distilled the case down to whether, as defined by Tenn. Code 57-10-102, the bar “sold” alcohol to Langworthy on the night of accident. That statute permits a jury to find a seller of alcohol liable for personal injuries if the purchaser served was a “visibly intoxicated person.” Both sides argued that a 2006 decision, Temlock v. McGinnis, supported their case. The appeals court concluded that the situation in the Temlock case, where the court imposed liability against the seller, was much different than the facts of the current case. The driver in the Temlock case ordered his own beer, paid for his own beer and the bar staff served it directly to him. None of these facts were true with Langworthy, and the family had no proof indicating that the bar sold alcohol to Langworthy, the court decided.
Additionally, the appeals court joined the trial court in rebuffing the Smith family’s request to allow them to pursue their case to create new law that would hold a seller of alcohol liable if it serves a large number of drinks to a single purchaser who then distributes those drinks to other guests at the establishment. Creating such new law would be an improper overreach of judicial authority, the court stated, pointing out that it “is not the role of the courts to modify the General Assembly’s public policy decision by creating ‘new law’ as is sought by” the Smith family.
Whether the decision was correctly decided is arguable, but it certainly is not helpful public policy. Bars should be held liable if they knowingly serve a visibly intoxicated person who they know is going to drive. Excusing the bar from any liability simply because the drinks were actually purchased by other patrons seems to avoid the intent, if not the letter of the statute.
If you’ve been injured by a driver who was intoxicated, distracted or otherwise impaired, get in touch with the Law Office of David S. Hagy, PSC. Our attorneys can help you form a plan to pursue your case and seek the recovery that you deserve.
Reach us online or call (615) 975-7882.
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