A majority of U.S. states, New Jersey included, have “dram shop” laws on their books. These laws create civil liability for establishments that sell alcohol to intoxicated persons who later cause injuries as a result of their intoxication.
By allowing bars, restaurants and packaged alcohol sellers to be sued for the injuries caused by their drunken customers, dram shop laws are intended to encourage these shops to more carefully monitor their customers and “cut them off” before they’ve had too much to drink.
Some states, including New Jersey, also allow the intoxicated person to sue the alcohol seller for self-sustained injuries arising from drinking too much. Critics of dram shop laws say that the laws place too little emphasis on personal responsibility–particularly those laws that allow the intoxicated person to sue the seller for his own injuries.
The New Jersey Supreme Court will soon hear a case that brings together these issues of personal responsibility and dram shop responsibility. The case, Voss v. Tranquilino, concerns a motorcyclist who was injured in a collision. His blood alcohol level was found to be more than double the legal limit, and he sued the restaurant where he had been drinking. The restaurant pointed to another New Jersey law concerning insurance, which says people who are guilty of driving while intoxicated “shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.”
In essence, the insurance statute promotes personal responsibility by preventing those who drink and drive from suing for their injuries. However, it would also appear to invalidate the state’s dram shop act, which does allow those injured from alcohol–even the drinkers themselves–to sue.
Two lower courts that have already heard the Voss case have held that the insurance statute cannot be used to invalidate the dram shop act, because the legislature would never intend to invalidate one law by implication with another law, and doing so would be against the state’s public policy of preventing drunken driving. When the Supreme Court hears the case as part of its 2010-2011 term, it will likely clarify this important issue of personal responsibility versus dram shop responsibility. Until then, if you have any questions about how these laws affect your rights and responsibilities, talk to an experienced attorney