Monday, February 22, 2010

Civil Liability and the Drunk Driver

Driving while under the influence of alcohol or "drunk driving" is strictly prohibited by the criminal statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A person convicted of "drunk driving" may be sentenced to prison for up to five (5) years. Other penalties, including operator license suspension, out patient and in patient treatment, and the requirement for a motor vehicle interlock device may also be imposed depending on the number of prior convictions, the amount of alcohol in the blood, whether there was an automobile collision and whether someone was injured or killed. Much has been written about the criminal penalties for drunk driving and it seems that the publicity and discussion stops there.

What of the civil liability that might be imposed on a drunk driver who, while under the influence, causes a collision resulting in injury or death to an innocent person? What of the civil liability for the tavern owner when an employee has served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor who is unlawfully obtaining alcohol at the establishment? What of the civil liability for the individual, commonly known as the social host, who provides alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest or a minor?

The drunk driver who causes injury or death is subject to civil liability for the pain, suffering, inconvenience, medical expenses and wage loss which the negligent act has caused and, in addition, may be subject to punitive damages, which are damages designed to punish one’s outrageous conduct. Although the drunk driver’s automobile insurance carrier may provide protection, that protection may be insufficient to compensate the injured party. However, the insurance contract will not protect against punitive damages. In addition, a victim of a motor vehicle collision with a drunk driver who has elected limited tort which, in this writer’s opinion is a serious mistake, will be treated as if full tort had been elected.

Although Pennsylvania courts have long recognized that a liquor licensee (tavern owner) may be liable for injuries or death cause by an intoxicated driver who was served alcoholic beverages while visibly intoxicated, the courts have yet to recognize social host liability for a similar event. In other words, the homeowner who serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person will not be held liable, at least at this point in time, for the injuries caused by the intoxicated person. Pennsylvania courts have recognized social host liability when an adult social host provides alcoholic beverages to a minor, particularly if that minor is visibly intoxicated. The courts have yet to extend this social host liability when the social host is a minor who has provided alcohol to another minor.

Whether the legislature will, in an effort to bring greater restraint and responsibility to the social host, adopt legislation which will impose additional liability on the social host remains to be seen. However, it is likely that these issues will be revisited by Pennsylvania’s Appellate Courts and, as in other states, the Appellate Courts may extend the social host liability to the intoxicated guest as well as the minor guest.

The message is clear to the driver, do not drive drunk for you not only risk prison but also complete financial disaster; to the social host, do not provide alcohol to minors or to an intoxicated person; and, of course, to the tavern owner, do not permit a minor to obtain alcohol in your establishment and never serve the intoxicated patron. A further word of advice to the tavern owner, purchase liquor liability insurance as it may be impractical to constantly police the patrons being served at your establishment.

Submitted by:

James T. Davis, Esquire