Car accident liability involves many complex legal issues, including a consideration about whether someone besides the at-fault driver might also be liable for a personal injury or wrongful death. After a car accident caused by a drunk driver, a lawyer must assess whether the client is eligible for damages under Connecticut’s Dram Shop Act.
A recent case before the Supreme Court of Connecticut involved a claim by the estate of a passenger killed in a car accident against a restaurant for selling alcohol to a patron who was intoxicated. In O’Dell v. Kozee, the court clarified the standard for proof of intoxication and ordered a new wrongful death trial.
The fatal drunk driving accident victim was killed after he and a friend left the Deja Vu Restaurant in Plainville in the friend’s vehicle. Based on his excessive blood-alcohol level obtained after the accident, the friend had likely consumed the equivalent of more than fifteen alcoholic beverages during the evening. Two miles from the restaurant, the friend drove into the back of a parked truck and the victim was ejected from the vehicle and run over by an oncoming vehicle.
The administrator of the estate of the accident victim filed a wrongful death suit against the restaurant, and the jury returned a verdict in the estate’s favor with an award of $4 million in damages. While the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict, it did reduce the damages award to $250,000 under Connecticut’s Dram Shop Act’s damages cap.
The defendant appealed based on a contention that that no evidence was presented at trial of the friend’s visible or perceivable intoxication. The Court of Appeals agreed that the plaintiff was required to present such evidence to prevail on a Dram Shop Act claim, and reversed the verdict with an order to issue a judgment in favor of the defendant.
On further appeal, the state Supreme Court engaged in a thorough review of prior cases that interpreted the legal standard for holding drinking establishments accountable under the Dram Shop Act. The court agreed with the Court of Appeals, holding that proof of perceivable intoxication on the part of the patron is required to show that a bar or restaurant is liable for the harm caused in a subsequent accident.
However, the court stressed that “any perceptible indicator of intoxication at the time of service, including excessive alcohol consumption itself, can be sufficient to deem the purveyor on notice of its potential exposure to liability under the act and thus permit recovery.”
Regarding another important issue, the court overturned the Court of Appeals. Noting that the trial court had ruled that the plaintiff did not have to supply evidence of visible signs of intoxication in order to prevail on the Dram Shop liability claim, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff was entitled to a new trial and an opportunity to prove perceivable intoxication.
PROTECTING A CLIENT’S INTERESTS IN CASES INVOLVING COMPLEX THEORIES OF LIABILITY
Holding any defendant beyond the driver accountable for negligence or culpable acts requires a thorough knowledge of accident law and a close review of all available evidence. Whether a case involves defective vehicle components, lax truck maintenance or a bartender who served a drunk patron, a personal injury attorney can explain a client’s options and the prospects for a negotiated settlement or success at trial and on appeal.