The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a $15 million dram shop verdict in favor of four plaintiffs – three seriously injured and the mother of one killed – in a drunk driving accident eight years ago.
Decedent was a 13-year-old boy. Two older teen passengers were seriously injured, as was the teen driver.
The 19-year-old behind the wheel had purchased liquor from a local convenience store that had a reputation among youth for selling booze to underage consumers. The crash, which occurred in Tuscaloosa, occurred when driver careened off the road and struck a tree. Although the passengers were wearing their seat belts, the sheer force of impact caused them to be ejected anyway.
The case was significant for a few reasons. First, it is believed to be the largest dram shop lawsuit verdict affirmed by that state’s supreme court ever. Secondly, it affirms the fact that punitive damages – which are intended to punish a wrongdoer for egregious or especially reckless actions – can be sought even a plaintiff is comparatively at-fault (as the driver was in this case). It also allows that punitive damages to be determined on a per-plaintiff basis, rather than as a whole and then divvied up. Finally, it affirms the right of dram shop plaintiffs to pierce the corporate veil in order to hold business owners personally liable for such damages, which combined with the hefty punitive damages creates a substantial incentive to prevent such action in the future.
Here, four separate personal injury lawsuits were consolidated into one action against the company for sale of alcohol to the underage driver. Like Florida, Alabama has a Dram Shop Act which allows lawsuits to be filed against stores, restaurants, bars or clubs that sell or furnish alcohol to minors who then cause injury or damages. Alabama’s dram shop law is actually a bit more extensive than Florida’s in that it also allows compensation when an establishment serves alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated. Florida’s law only allows for compensation for injuries stemming from sale of alcohol to minors or those known to be habitually addicted to alcohol.
The surviving victims in this case suffered broken bones, ruptured spleens, head injuries, lung injuries, mental anguish and other damages. They were required to undergo repeated surgeries and suffer ongoing medical problems as a result of the crash.
As one attorney was later quoted as saying, “Everybody knew that was the place to go to if you are underage and don’t have an ID.”
That reputation may have resulted in a relative uptick in sales for a while, but it will now cost the owner dearly. The jury awarded:
- $3 million in punitive damages and $750,000 in damages to male surviving passenger;
- $7 million in damages to mother of decedent passenger;
- $3.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages to female passenger;
- $500,000 in punitive damages to mother of impaired driver
A second phase of the trial concluded the owner could be personally liable to pay this amount.
The jury award was affirmed by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and then appealed again to the state supreme court. After weighing the initial points of contention by defendants, the supreme court requested both sides argue three additional issues, which were points of first impression for the court. Those included issues of excessive punitive damages, punitive damage disbursement with multiple plaintiffs and prohibition of punitive damages for comparative fault.
After weighing all arguments, the court affirmed the jury verdict without opinion.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.
Alabama Supreme Court Upholds $15M Verdict in Dram Shop Act Lawsuit, Nov. 24, 2015, Staff Report, Insurance Journal
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Florida Holiday Travel on the Uptick, Meaning Risks on the Rise Too, Dec. 8, 2015, Orlando Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer Blog