Voss v. Tranquilino
In Voss v. Tranquilino (Docket No. A-110-09, Decided June 1, 2011) the New Jersey Supreme Court held that N.J.S.A. § 39:6A-4.5(b)—prohibiting driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenders involved in accidents from suing for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss—does not preclude negligence suits against licensed alcohol servers. That is, N.J.S.A. § 39:6A-4.5(b) is coexistent with the deterrence and liability-imposing principles of the Dram Shop Act, N.J.S.A. §§ 2A:22A-1 to 2A:22A-7.
Plaintiff motorcycle rider alleged that, prior to the accident at issue, he was a patron at the restaurant owned by defendants and was negligently served alcoholic beverages that contributed to the accident and caused his injuries. The motorcycle rider was charged with DWI, and pled guilty. Based on plaintiff’s guilty plea, defendant sought dismissal of the suit on the grounds that N.J.S.A. § 39:6A-4.5(b) operates as bar to recovery for DWI offenders. The trial court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The panel explained that the Dram Shop Act serves to: (1) make liability coverage for liquor licensees more available and affordable by defining the limits of the civil liability of beverage servers; (2) encourage the use of risk reduction techniques by liquor licensees; and (3) permit a person who sustains damages as a result of negligent service to sue. Review of legislative history indicated that a provision prohibiting suit against licensed servers was explicitly rejected as overly burdensome to negligence victims. Moreover, such a reading would create a disincentive to liquor establishments to refrain from serving visibly intoxicated patrons.
Because the purpose of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was to bring down automobile insurance premiums, and not to reduce liquor liability insurance premiums or to in any way affect dram shop claims, the court reasoned that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) must not operate to bar negligence suits. The court determined that barring dram shop claims would unjustifiably constitute repeal by implication of a portion of the Dram Shop Act. Moreover, immunizing liquor licensees from liability in such circumstances would be inimical to the State’s policy of curbing drunk driving. In agreement with the foregoing findings of the Appellate division, the Supreme Court affirmed. The Court noted that in allowing the action to proceed, rather than barring it pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the application of established principles of comparative negligence will apportion properly the responsibility for damages as between dram shop parties and the injured driver.