With the holidays recently coming to a close, many people are looking back on late-night gatherings they enjoyed with friends and family throughout the season. While most holiday parties go smoothly, however, from our experience practicing law we know that many of these events end in DUI charges and other alcohol-related legal problems. Historically, alcohol has had a complex relationship with the law, ranging from outright prohibition in the 1920s to modern-day task forces monitoring underage drinking near fraternity houses. Because of this, laws are refined and changed rather frequently, and one of the most important examples is the Georgia Supreme Court’s reinforcement of the Dram Shop Act last July.
While the Dram Shop Act was originally created in 1988, until a recent case called Flores v. Exprezit! Stores there was room for confusion about what exactly the law meant. Before the Dram Shop Act, it was assumed that if someone drank too much and caused a car accident, it was the fault of the intoxicated person rather than the store or bar that sold the alcohol. Although this was reasonable in some cases, since just selling alcohol cannot do any harm until it is consumed, the Dram Shop Act was designed to address certain special cases that may need to be treated differently.
Specifically, in the Act the General Assembly affirmed the original “common law” assumption, while adding two exceptions: underage drinkers and noticeably intoxicated people over 21. According to the new law, any store that provided alcohol to an underage person or an obviously drunk adult, while knowing that the person was about to drive, could now be liable for any injuries or deaths caused by the customer’s intoxication. In other words, if a bartender sells alcohol to a person who is obviously intoxicated, knowing full well that the person is about to drive somewhere, then the owner of the bar could be liable for any injuries that result from the person’s drunk driving.
In 2004, a similar example occurred when a young man named Billy Joe Grundell arrived intoxicated at an Exprezit! convenience store, consumed some of the alcohol on store property, and soon caused a catastrophic car accident. How catastrophic? Unfortunately, we will never hear Grundell’s side of the story, because he and the one passenger in his car were killed immediately, although autopsy showed his blood alcohol content to be significantly above the legal limit at 0.18. The other victims of Grundell’s drunk driving happened to be the Flores family, a group of seven people in a minivan; four of those seven were killed, and two others were injured. Faced with a deceased drunk driver and a tragic loss of life, Georgia Courts were called upon to decide if the Exprezit! store itself could be liable for the deaths in the Flores family.
Although it may be surprising to those of us who exercise caution when driving on Georgia roads, more than 2,000 people have died in Georgia drunk driving accidents within the last five years. Aside from the many fatal accidents that occur annually, there are thousands of Georgia drivers with long records of DUI charges. Perhaps with the reality of so many irresponsible drinkers in mind, the trial court that first ruled on the Flores case decided that Exprezit! was not actually responsible. Although multiple eyewitnesses testified that the store had indeed sold alcohol to Grundell and that it had been obvious the young man was preparing to drive, the court decided to dismiss the case because convenience stores are not technically “dram shops” like bars or taverns.
Refusing to let this setback deter them, the Flores family and their lawyers pressed on to the appellate court, again stating their case that Exprezit! was partially responsible for the horrible collision. The legal battle was not over, however: the Court of Appeals agreed with the first judge, reasoning that Exprezit! could not have actually known that selling alcohol to Grundell would be dangerous. Even if he was clearly not sober, how could a store be responsible for keeping track of a customer’s actions and intentions after leaving store property? Again, the Flores family refused to accept the idea that Exprezit! had no hand in the horrific accident, and their case was eventually accepted by Georgia’ s Supreme Court. Now, finally, there would be a definitive answer as to what circumstances, exactly, leave alcohol sellers liable.
After another intense legal battle, the Georgia Supreme Court considered all the case’s evidence and made a final decision: the trial court and the Court of Appeals had been mistaken. Explaining that they “could not accept” the Appellate Court’s reasoning that Exprezit! could not have known what Grundell would do with the alcohol he purchased, the Supreme Court affirmed the 1988 Dram Shop Act’s exception for obviously intoxicated individuals. Clearly, they asserted, the Flores case exemplified exactly what the Act was meant to prevent—a visibly drunk person purchased alcohol while clearly intending to drive away from the store, and Exprezit! had a responsibility to prevent this dangerous combination of alcohol and heavy machinery.
Put simply, the 2011 Supreme Court case reaffirms the original Dram Shop Act’s statutes while also clarifying its intentions. While it may be true that simply purchasing alcohol can do no harm until it is consumed, it is safer for society if alcohol sellers prevent an obviously dangerous situation from escalating. We even have the data to prove it: the Center for Disease Control’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services has reviewed more than eleven research studies that show a clear relationship between dram shop liability and decreases in alcohol-related injuries. When considering the natural desire of restaurants and stores to maximize profits, this seems logical: with thousands of dollars in liability at risk, that $10 sale to a drunk person with a car key suddenly becomes less attractive.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that this law does not absolve individual responsibility for drinking. Billy Joe Grundell would definitely have found himself in prison if he had not died immediately in the accident he caused, and the Courts recognize that individuals are primarily liable for the damage they cause. In order to have a legitimate dram shop case, lawyers have to prove that alcohol was the main cause of an injury, the person causing the injury was either noticeably intoxicated or underage when purchasing alcohol, and it was clear the person would soon be driving. The Flores case certainly arose from a tragic story, but hopefully its legal implications will lead to safer roads in the future.