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Third-Party Liability for Drunk Driving Injuries: Dram Shops, Social Hosts, Police Negligence and Dangerous Conditions of Public Property

Although most civil suits arising from drunk driving accidents are aimed, rightfully, at the defendants who chose to operate their vehicles while under the influence, third-parties are occasionally found liable for contributory negligence. Attempting to impose liability on third parties can be beneficial for plaintiffs if the drunk drivers they’re facing are insolvent and/or uninsured, but they’re also difficult claims to prove, especially in California.

The focus of this article will be on several theories that have been used, with mixed success, to expand liability for drunk driving injuries, including: dram shop laws, social host liability, police negligence, and municipal liability for dangerous conditions on public property.

Dram Shop and Social Host Liability

“Dram shop” laws have been enacted in many states to impose liability for drunk driving injuries on bars and other alcoholic beverage vendors who serve obviously intoxicated patrons and do not take any measures to prevent them from driving. In California, however, Bus. & Prof. Code §25602 disclaims this type of liability, stating that “No person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage pursuant to subdivision (a) of this section shall be civilly liable to any injured person or the estate of such person for injuries inflicted on that person as a result of intoxication by the consumer of such alcoholic beverage.” Bus. & Prof. Code §25602.1, however, provides an exception for alcoholic beverage vendors who sell or give away drinks to obviously intoxicated minors. If the provision of alcohol to such a minor is the proximate cause of personal injuries subsequently sustained by another person, the alcoholic beverage vendor may then be held civilly liable.

Cantwell v. Peppermill, Inc., 25 Cal. App. 4th 1797

While California has enacted statutes to limit dram shop liability, the courts have reached similar results with regard to social host liability, even without state legislation. The cases have held, broadly, that defendants who simply provide venues for drinking alcohol, but do not actually furnish alcohol to their guests, do not owe a duty of care to plaintiffs injured by guests who drive from the facilities while intoxicated. A good example of a social host case is Leong v. San Francisco Parking, 235 Cal. App. 3d 827 (1991), where the court refused to hold the San Francisco Giants parking facility responsible for a game attendee who became intoxicated during the game, drove drunk, and ended up killing the plaintiff’s son. The plaintiffs’ case could not proceed, the court ruled, because the parking facility did not provide game attendees with alcoholic beverages, but merely acted as a social host by supplying a venue where drinking was permitted.   

Similar claims were addressed in Sakiyama v. AMF Bowling Centers,Inc., 110 Cal.App. 4th 398 (2003), which involved two teenagers who were killed in a car accident after attempting to drive home from an all-night rave where drugs were being used and sold. The girls’ parents and two other teenagers who were injured in the accident sued the owner of the facility where the party was held, claiming that it had a duty not to host an inherently dangerous all-night rave. The court disagreed, however, finding that the party was not inherently dangerous and that the facility’s owner did not have a duty not to allow its facility to be used for such a party, even if it knew or could assume that drugs would be used by some of the attendees.

Another interesting case involving claims of third-party liability for drunk driving injuries is Knighten v. Sam’s Parking Valet, 206 Cal. App. 3d 69 (1988). The plaintiffs, who were injured by a drunk driver, sued the restaurant which had served alcohol to the driver as well as the valet service who returned her car. With regard to the valet, the plaintiffs alleged that the company was under a duty to exercise due care in the return of cars to patrons, and that its witholding of cars from some patrons on prior occasions constituted assumption of a duty to do likewise in this other instances. The court held, however, that no such duty existed, nor did the valet’s return of the driver’s car amount to negligent entrustment.

Police Liability for Failing to Prevent Drunk Driving Injuries

Police negligence in failing to detain drunk drivers almost never results in municipal liability for injuries caused by the driver after being released. One case in which this argument was successful was Green v. City of Livermore, 117 Cal. App. 3d 82 (1981). The police officers in the case arrested an intoxicated driver but took no action to prevent the other two passengers from driving the vehicle, even though they were also drunk. One of the passengers then crashed the car and caused various injuries to innocent third parties. The plaintiffs sued the city, alleging that enactments of the city and its police department imposed a mandatory duty on police to either disable the vehicle, impound it, or confiscate the keys. Although the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, it did not specify what “enactments” constituted the source of the police officers’ duty.

Nearly identical claims were dismissed in a case decided several years later, and the holding was implicitly overruled. In that case, Lehto v.City of Oxnard, 171 Cal. App. 3d 285 (1985), the court explained that for a municipality to be liable for a police officer’s failure to detain an intoxicated driver, there must be a specific law or enactment imposing such a duty on the police officer and creating a special relationship between the police officer and potential victims of drunk driving accidents. This rule has continued to be applied to block municipal liability in cases such as  City of Sunnyvale v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App. 3d 839 (1988), where a police officer stopped the vehicle in which the plaintiff was travelling and found various alcoholic beverage containers, but still allowed the driver to return to the road and did not advise the plaintiff to find safer transportation.

Municipal Liability Based on Dangerous Conditions of Public Property

While negligent police conduct has not been accepted as a basis for liability in drunk driving accidents, other grounds may exist for municipal liability. In Cole v. Los Gatos, 205 Cal. App. 4th 749 (2012), for example, the plaintiff was struck by a drunk driver while standing near the back of her diagonally-parked vehicle. She sued the town, claiming that the configuration of the road and parking area created a dangerous condition by confusing drivers and failing to provide a reasonable and effective barrier between the road area and the parking area. The court ruled in her favor, explaining that a jury could reasonably conclude, based on the evidence, that both the dangerous condition of the parking lot and the actions of the drunk driver were proximate causes of the plaintiff’s injuries.

More Information

To learn more about liability for drunk driving injuries in California, contact the law offices of Nelson C. Barry at 415-587-0550.

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