Georgia Supreme Court’s Recent Drunk Driving Decision

On July 5, 2011, Georgia’s Supreme Court found a convenience store could be held liable for selling alcohol to a man who was responsible for a fatal car accident. Initially, the trial court granted the store’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the beverage was not sold to be consumed on the premises. At the time of the auto accident, and only four hours after buying a twelve-pack of beer from Exprezit!, his blood alcohol content was 0.181, more than twice the legal limit. The Court’s applied the “dram shop act” to its reasoning. The dram shop law states that anyone who knowingly sells or provides alcohol to someone who is noticeably intoxicated while knowing that the person will soon be driving may be liable if the alcohol is the direct cause of an injury. In his opinion for the majority, Justice Hugh Thompson reasoned that the act was all-inclusive, meaning that it was intended to encompass the sale of alcohol at places other than the “proverbial dram shop” or bar. On the other hand, Justice Robert Benham, dissenting, concluded this was an unfair interpretation of the act because clerks at grocery stores and convenience stores often experience a lesser degree of interaction with patrons. Justice Benham asserted that this affords them little opportunity to really judge the sobriety customers. It usually only takes a few seconds to assess soberness. Slurred words and instability, along with many other factors, are good indicators that someone may be impaired. In light of the fact that this particular culprit’s blood alcohol content exceeded the limit immediately after the crash, the clerk serving him at Exprezit! was probably given reason to think twice before selling him alcohol. The implications of this decision could be far-reaching. Small businesses that were previously protected from liability may now be much more susceptible to such claims. Steps may be taken to proactively eliminate that risk. For instance, store owners could protect themselves from liability by implementing policies and checklists that would help store clerks ascertain whether a customer purchasing alcohol appears to be driving alone. By engaging in more animated conversations during the check-out process, clerks may gain a better idea of the consumer’s level of sobriety and reserve the right to deny sale if there is any indication that such action is required. Protocol would call for store managers to step in with unruly customers and explain the policies. Hopefully, as news of this decision spreads, similar operations will choose to take steps that could help curb instances of drunk driving.

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