Businesses like restaurants, bars, and other commercial establishments that serve alcohol to customers who subsequently cause a crash can be liable for injury to drunk driving victims. When plaintiffs suffer an injury in an accident caused by an alcohol-impaired driver, they might find suing the intoxicated driver to be a fruitless pursuit. Approximately half to two-thirds of motorists convicted of drunk driving continue to operate their vehicle even though their driver’s license has been suspended. Because an unlicensed driver usually will be uninsured, many drunk drivers who cause permanent debilitating injury and wrongful death are essentially judgment proof. This simple reality makes the rights of a drunk driving victim to pursue a business that serves the motorist especially important. In this blog post, our Miami motorcycle accident lawyers examine a court decision last year in which the Florida Court of Appeals ordered a retrial after a jury awarded $11 million against a bar that served the drunk driver.
In Okeechobee Aerie v. Wilde, a motorcyclist was hit by a drunk driver who was highly intoxicated. The motorist who caused the collision was determined to have a .26 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at the time of the crash. The staff of the social club bar that served the intoxicated driver testified that they knew he was an alcoholic. Based on this evidence, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the establishment. After the jury returned the large verdict for the plaintiff, the bar appealed by arguing that it was not liable under Florida’s Responsible Vendor Act.
The Florida dram shop law is much narrower than in many states because liability is limited to two specific situations. Under Florida Stat. § 768.125 (2016), liability is imposed on a business that serves a drunk driver who causes an accident only when it willfully serves alcohol to an underage drinker or knowingly serves a habitual alcoholic. While many states impose liability when the business serves an individual who already was obviously intoxicated, Florida’s dram shop law does not apply in these situations.
Although the Florida dram shop law imposes liability on a business that knowingly serves a habitual drunk, the appellate court required that the plaintiff do more than present sufficient evidence that the bar knowingly served an alcoholic. The 4th DCA reasoned that the dram shop law eliminates a cause of action by limiting certain negligence legal claims that might otherwise be available to a victim of a business that serves a drunk driver. The court indicated that the plaintiff needed to establish the bar owed a legal duty to the victim that was breached. It found that the trial judge errored in allowing evidence of the Responsible Vendor Act.
The trial judge admitted evidence of a previous incident involving the establishment in which a victim died in a crash caused by an intoxicated driver. While this type of information might constitute inadmissible evidence of past bad acts to establish a propensity to commit such an act under some circumstances, the evidence was admitted solely to prove the bar owner was aware of the statute and its duties under the law. Since the law was not admitted as evidence against the bar, the prior violation of the law by the bar also was excluded.
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While this might have been the most compelling evidence that the bar staff and ownership knew its legal duty when serving the habitual drunk, this decision forced a new trial and negated a substantial verdict for the plaintiffs. Our lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance clients need to pursue the results they desire. For over 130 collective years, our firm has assisted accident victims in personal injury and wrongful death actions across South Florida. We seek to obtain compensation for your tangible and intangible damages, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. Our skill and dedication have earned us an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and recognition as one of South Florida’s top firms by the Miami Herald. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.