Punitive Damages Against Bar Owner in Alabama

My friend and client,  Mehdi Arradizadeh, Risk Director at Anderson Trucking Service, Inc., recently reported about a case in Alabama: 
It is common knowledge that drunk driving is illegal and if a driver is found to be over the legal limit and causes an accident, they will face serious consequences including possible jail time. Further, the drunk driver could face a financially draining civil lawsuit if the drunk driver seriously injures or kills a victim in an accident.
However, some residents of Huntsville may not realize that if they are seriously injured or a loved one is killed by a drunk driver, a drinking establishment can in some circumstances also be held liable, in addition to the drunk driver. This is referred to as dram shop liability.
Dram shop liability, however, is more difficult to prove. In order for a drinking establishment like a bar or restaurant, or a store that sells alcohol to be held liable under these laws, it must be proven before a judge and jury that the establishment knowingly served alcohol to an intoxicated individual. Further, it must also be proved that the alcohol knowingly served to that intoxicated individual directly related to an accident that caused injury or death to a victim.

If these circumstances are found to be a factor in an accident, the establishment could also be held financially liable. In a drunk driving accident that happened outside of Alabama, a 23-year-old woman was leaving an establishment that served alcohol when another individual that was also leaving the establishment ran her over with his vehicle. The car was a monster truck that was modified in a variety of manners and had huge tires, which effectively crushed this victim to death when the drunk driver did not see her exit the club.
The victim’s family was of course devastated. Accordingly, they filed a lawsuit alleging both the driver and drinking establishment liable for this young woman’s death. The driver was found to be at twice the legal limit when he ran over the victim, accordingly, the jury decided that the drinking establishment was in fact responsible in this death because they should have known how intoxicated this man was, yet they still served him and then he killed someone. Consequently, a $10.5 million dram shop verdict was awarded.
In LOUISIANA, punitive damages are allowed against a drunk driver, but we have statute which makes bars immune from liability. LSA R.S. 9:2800.1 states the legislature has determined that the consumption, rather than serving, of alcohol is the proximate cause of an accident. As long as the criteria of the statute are met, it really does not matter how much the patron has drunk for the bar to be immune.
Of course, the immunity statute doesn’t apply to minors or if the employer allows employee’s to drink alcohol at work-related functions.
A few years ago, I defended a trucking company accused of allowing its salepeople to drink excessively. One of the salesmen was involved in an accident while driving a company car on a Saturday night when he had been drinking heavily. Obviously, we argued that the employer/trucking company was NOT vicariously liable for the actions of employee who clearly was outside the scope of employment.
We were prepare to try this case as we had strong arguments for our position, particularly after presenting these arguments to focus group. Because the issue of punitive damages being imposed on the employer was a high risk, we were able to resolve the case very reasonably before the trial started.
I will bet that Alabama legislature will make some changes in their laws after this case!
…Or maybe the folks in Louisiana are more tolerant of alcohol consumption. Not so much in NORTH Louisiana, but the Cajuns love beer. Well actually, folks North Louisiana aren’t as much of teetotalers as we try to portray. Ask me sometime about “50-mile Baptists.”
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