Articles Tagged with “drunk driving”

On January 7, 2003, 16-year-old Trista Zinck was struck and killed by an underage drunk driver, William White, as she walked with her boyfriend, Neil Bornstein, along Ferry Road in Newburyport. Bornstein survived, but was seriously injured. Before the accident, White had been drinking at his friend Brendan Kneram’s house, whose parents were away. Earlier that day, White, Kneram and their two friends pooled some money, and Kneram used his fake New Jersey driver’s license to purchase a 30-pack of beer at The Gateway Country Store in Seabrook, NH.

Since the accident occurred in Massachusetts, Zinck and Bornstein’s families brought actions for negligence in the Massachusetts Superior Court against both the driver and Gateway Country Store, alleging that the store negligently sold beer to an underage buyer, a transaction that was the proximate cause of the accident that killed Zinck and injured Bornstein. In 2004, an Essex County jury decided that the liquor store was partially responsible for the wrongful death and injuries, and awarded the families nearly $9 million in damages, which the defendants promptly appealed.

On appeal, Gateway admitted that it sold the beer to the underage Brendan Kneram, but argued that because it was William White who became intoxicated and caused the accident, the store should not be held liable. In Massachusetts, to be liable for negligent conduct, the plaintiffs had to prove two primary elements:

  • First, they had to prove that the defendants owed a duty of care, and that they breached that duty. Businesses that sell alcohol owe a duty of care to the public, by law. In this case, the jury found that Gateway breached this duty by selling alcohol to someone whom the store clerk reasonably should have known was under 21.
  • Second, the plaintiffs had to prove that there was a causal link between the breach (the sale of the alcohol) and the harm (the car accident). Gateway argued that its liability ended once Kneram served the beer to his friends, but the jury did not agree.

In its opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reiterated the test of causation, which the trial judge had instructed the jury to apply: If an intervening act (Kneram giving the beer to his friends) was foreseeable by the defendant, then the original negligent act (the sale of the beer) remains a proximate cause of the harm (the car accident).

Another important part of this test is that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant could have foreseen the exact harm that occurred, but only the injuries that could have occurred in “substantially the manner” in which they did. In this case, plaintiffs had to show the jury that the liquor store clerk could have reasonably foreseen that selling 30 cans of beer to an underage man with an out-of-state license, on a snowy, January evening, with a car full of other underage teenagers waiting in the parking lot, is an action that could potentially cause a fatal drunk driving accident.

Here are two more general, important points to keep in mind about causation and the role of the jury in these types of cases:

This is a civil case, not a criminal case, so the burden of proof is much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A jury only needs to find “more likely than not” that the defendant was negligent. The two elements of negligence (breach and causation) are questions of fact for the jury to sort out after evaluating the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ versions of the events.

It should be noted that under Massachusetts law, the driver and the liquor store were found jointly liable, meaning both are responsible for the full amount of the damages. The plaintiffs will be able to recover the balance of the damages from the liquor store since the insurance on the driver will be inadequate to cover the damages.

The name of the case above is Zinck vs. Gateway Country Store, Inc., 72 Mass. App. Ct. 571 (2009).

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The Massachusetts courts have continued to expand the liability of individuals and companies which contribute to drunk driving accidents. On November 26, 2008, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court ruled that limousine driver have a responsibility to prevent their passengers from drinking and driving, and to prevent drunk driving accidents.

In the accident leading to the case, one man was killed and several others were injured in a car accident caused by the drunk driver. The driver, along with several other men, had been drinking at a bachelor party on the night of the crash. The men, expecting to become intoxicated during the party, had hired a limousine service to provide safe transportation. The limo driver picked the men up at a bar in South Boston, where they had been drinking, and drove them to a strip club in Rhode Island, stopping along the way to purchase even more alcohol. The limo driver allowed the men to drink in the limo on the return trip. The limo driver knew the passengers were drunk.

At 2:10 A.M., the limo driver dropped at least one man off at his car near the South Boston bar. The bar was closed. The MBTA was closed. It was plainly foreseeable that the drunk limo passenger would attempt to drive home.

The victims of the drunk driving crash sued the limo service for wrongful death and personal injuries, arguing that its driver knew, or should have known, that his passenger was drunk, was going to drive home, and would likely injure or kill someone. The trial court threw the case out, saying the limo driver had no responsibility. But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the limo driver had the duty or responsibility to use reasonable care to avoid discharging its passenger “who they knew, or should have know, was intoxicated” and likely to drink and drive.

The SJC stated, “[a] private carrier, engaged in the business of transporting persons consuming alcohol, is in a primary position to use care to avoid leaving an intoxicated passenger at a location where it is likely the passenger will drive.” The case will now go to trial.

This case is important because it defines responsibility on private carriers, such as limo drivers, to make sure passengers who have been drinking do not drive home drunk after they are dropped off. Private carriers are required to exercise “reasonable care” to ensure that its passengers are not going to drive home drunk at the end of the night.

In addition to limo drivers and private carries, bars and restaurants also have a legal duty to prevent people from drinking and driving. Bars are prohibited from serving customers who are visibly intoxicated. If a bar serves someone who is visibly intoxicated, and that person drives home and causes a car crash, the bar is legally responsible for injuries caused by the drunk driver. This is known as “dram shop” liability.

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There are about 6.5 million residents of Massachusetts, and about 4.6 million drivers. The number of miles driven each year for the last three years has been in the range of roughly 55 million miles per year. And despite efforts to improve vehicle safety, enforce traffic laws, and improve highway design, death rates have dropped only slightly, primarily as a result of fewer pedestrian accidents.

Here is a summary of some of the statistics. The statistics for 2007 are not yet available.

Fatal Accidents in
Massachusetts 2004-2006

Victim 2004 2005 2006
Driver 234 232 233
Passenger 88 70 76
Motorcyclist 58 54 49
Pedestrian 82 79 61
Bicyclist 11 5 6
Other/Unknown 3 1 4
Total 476 441 429

Statistics for the same period are not completely available concerning disabling injuries. However, for 2004 and 2005 the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security reports over 5,000 people suffered incapacitating injuries from some sort of motor vehicle crash. In the same two years, 138,465 and 158,802 motor vehicle crashes were reported.

Drunk driving continues to play a major role in fatal car accidents, though the last three years have seen a slight drop in the role of alcohol in fatal accidents.

Year Fatalities
Total Alcohol
Related
% 0.08 %
2004 476 203 43 181 38
2005 442 171 39 150 34
2006 422 159 38 137 32

These data include not just deaths to the drunk drivers, but to passengers, other motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. It also includes deaths related to alcohol consumed by pedestrians and bicyclists.

In addition to the wrongful deaths of so many individuals caused by drunk drivers, there are also thousands of personal injuries caused by drunk driving accidents.

If you or a loved one has suffered personal injury or if a loved one has suffered wrongful death as a result of a drunk driving accident or other motor vehicle accident, please contact the lawyers at Breakstone, White & Gluck today for a free consultation. Our toll free number is 800-379-1244. Learn more about Hiring an Attorney for a Car Accident Case.

More Information:
Massachusetts Drunk Driving Statistics Center for Disease Control and Prevention Injury Center-Impaired Driving