Restaurant Not Responsible for Injuries Caused by Intoxicated Driver

State legislatures have long made reducing drunk driving on the highways a top priority. Every year drunk drivers kill other motorists and pedestrians in serious car accidents. When these accidents occur, police and prosecutors investigate the causes of the incidents so as to ensure that the responsible parties are held legally accountable.

Connecticut, like a majority of states, has a statute that holds commercial sellers of alcohol, such as bars or restaurants, responsible for injuries caused by those who became intoxicated as a result of alcohol served there. These laws, commonly referred to as Dram Shop Acts, provide that owners of such establishments face civil liability if their employees serve alcohol to a patron who later drives while intoxicated and injure another on the highways.

Connecticut Dram Shop Law

The Connecticut statute permits a suit in situations where an owner or his or her employee serves liquor to an intoxicated person, and the intoxicated person later injures another person or causes damage to property. The statute also limits the damages available from the owners of the establishments to $250,000. This limit of liability can be problematic for those seriously injured or killed by a drunk driver. A recovery of $250,000 may be inadequate compensation for the harms and losses suffered, and the statute does not allow any other lawsuit or recovery from the parties who served the intoxicated person.

The Connecticut law has produced several court decisions that clarify when the Dram Shop Act applies. One of the main questions for the courts concerns the issue of whether the patron was intoxicated at the time he or she was served alcohol at the bar or restaurant. The statute did not define the standard for proving intoxication, so the courts have had to set the standard in their decisions.

The 1985 Connecticut Supreme Court case, Sanders v. Officers Club of Connecticut, Inc., provided a first judicial definition of intoxication in dram shop cases. The court held that for intoxication to be established there must be signs of intoxication at the time the patron was served alcohol. The court also emphasized that it was not necessary for the person to be "dead-drunk", but only that those who were interacting with the person could tell that he or she was intoxicated.

Later Connecticut cases have followed the standard of "visible intoxication" that the Sanders decision established. The courts have held that proof of visible intoxication doesn't require a restaurant server or bartender to observe the impaired behavior; it could be noticed by anyone. Thus a business owner could be held liable even if the staff claimed they were unaware of a patron's intoxication, so long as it was evident to someone else on the premises.

Signs of Impairment?

The recent Connecticut Court of Appeals case, O'Dell v. Kozee, confronted the question of whether it was necessary for a person to exhibit signs of impairment at time of service, or whether after the fact evidence could establish intoxication. In that case, Joel Pracher and Patrick O'Dell were competing in a billiards league at the Déjà Vu Restaurant in Plainville, Connecticut. Pracher drove O'Dell to the restaurant around 7 p.m.

Pracher consumed five beers, two shots and one mixed drink before he and O'Dell left at 12:45 a.m. On the way home, Pracher collided with a parked vehicle roughly two miles from the restaurant. The resulting crash ejected O'Dell from the vehicle. He landed on the opposite side of the road and was run over almost immediately by a passing vehicle.

After the crash, Pracher was found to have a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.187. Upon being questioned after accident, Pracher admitted being drunk. But before leaving the restaurant, he had been observed walking and talking normally. When he purchased alcoholic beverages there, he showed no signs of intoxication.

The estate of O'Dell filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kenneth Kozee, the person listed on the permits for the restaurant. The trial court ruled in favor of the estate, finding the defendants responsible for O'Dell's death and awarding damages. The defendants appealed, contending that the estate did not offer sufficient evidence that Pracher was visibly intoxicated while he was at the restaurant.

On appeal, the estate argued that there were four factors which could be used to establish that Pracher was intoxicated: his 0.187 BAC after the crash; testimony from the investigating officer at the scene who believed that alcohol was a factor in the accident; Pracher's own admissions of intoxication; and the testimony of a fellow patron at the restaurant who believed Pracher must have been drunk based on the amount of alcohol he had consumed.

The appellate court ruled otherwise, however, holding that the evidence relied upon by the trial court to establish intoxication was insufficient under the Dram Shop Act. The court held that visible evidence of actual intoxication was required to establish liability on the part of the bar or restaurant. The case was sent back to the trial judge with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

This ruling illustrates the difficulties of proving patron intoxication in dram shop cases. Often the only witnesses available to prove that a bar or restaurant patron was intoxicated at the time he or she was served, are the employees of the establishment.

As in many complex legal cases, early investigation of a dram shop case is essential to winning the case. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with a drunk driver, you should contact an experienced injury lawyer as soon as possible to help preserve your right to fair compensation for your injuries.