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).