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NJ Supreme Court Opinion

Jun 2, 2011 - Industry News by

NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT RULES THAT INJURED DRUNK DRIVERS MAY SUE BARS THAT FURNISHED THEM ALCOHOL 

(TRENTON, NJ,  June 2, 2011) – The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued an Opinion holding that despite a prohibiting drivers convicted of DWI from recovering in tort for injuries, a drunk driver may recover for injuries against a bar establishment that improperly furnished them alcohol, under New Jersey’s Dram Shop Act.

            In Voss v. Tranquilio, a 5-2 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that such Dram Shop claims may be brought by an injured intoxicated driver.

            The case stems from a 2006 incident in which Fredrick Voss crashed his motorcycle into a car and injured himself.  His blood alcohol level was nearly two-and-a-half times the legal limit.  He pled guilty to a DWI charge but later filed suit against Tiffany’s Restaurant in Toms River under the Dram Shop Act.   For the most part, a person who has been convicted of drunk driving or refusal to submit to a breath test is barred from asserting ANY cause of action for personal injuries, pain & suffering or property damage arising out of an accident related to the drunk driving case. This result is mandated by NJSA 39:6A-4.5.   However, Voss argued that under the New Jersey Dram Shop Act, the law allows him to recover against a bar that improperly furnished him with alcohol – i.e., that he was served when visibly intoxicated.

            The New Jersey Supreme Court sided with Voss stating that existing law does not explicitly bar drunken drivers for suing for their own injuries.   It explained:

An intoxicated person is deterred from driving drunk by losing the right to sue under Title 39 for insurance coverage for his injuries.  On the other hand permitting an injured drink driver to file an action against a liquor establishment and its servers for serving a visibly intoxicated patron also advances the goal of deterring drunk driving.

            Since the ruling, there has been some public reaction in opposition to the Opinion, including pending proposed legislation to specifically overturn such decision and prohibit drunken drivers from suing establishments under the Dram Shop Act. (NJ Assembly Bill 4228 – 2010-2011 Regular Session).