WWHGD Wins Dram Shop Case, Changing Legal Landscape for Hospitality Industry

On April 26, 2005, Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial received a favorable ruling for its client Buffalo's Cafe. In the case of Willbanks v. Sugarloaf Cafe, Inc. d/b/a Buffalo's Cafe, handled by partner Ken Moorman and associate Ray Fuerst, the Supreme Court of Georgia granted the summary judgment motion of Buffalo's Cafe. In so doing, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the state court of appeals ruling that created a new dram shop duty. This case stands as an impediment to inroads in the area of dram shop litigation by overzealous plaintiffs attempting to hold bars, restaurants, hotels and other purveyors of alcohol liable for the actions of drunk drivers.

On April 11, 2000, employees and management of Oxy-Plus, Inc. went across their parking lot to a Buffalos Cafe after work to eat and drink alcohol. One woman drove her car to Buffalo's and gave Jennifer Phillips a ride. The other patrons drove by themselves.

At Buffalo's, the group sat at a table in the bar and were served by the bartender. Ms. Phillips, the drunk driver at issue, drank many glasses of wine and the entire party was served a large volume of alcohol. At the end of the night, the woman who drove Ms. Phillips left alone. Since Ms. Phillips did not have a car at Buffalo's, a man in the group drove her from Buffalo's to the Oxy-Plus office to pick up her car.

After leaving Oxy-Plus, Phillips collided with the plaintiffs car, resulting in the accident at issue in this case. The driver and a passenger in the other vehicle were seriously injured.

In order to recover against a purveyor of alcohol for dram shop liability, a party must prove two important elements:

a person who knowingly sells alcoholic beverages to a person who is in a noticeable state of intoxication, knowing that such person will motor vehicle, may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such person when the sale is the proximate cause of such injury or damage O.C.G.A. 51-1-40.

In order to recover against Buffalo's, the plaintiffs had to show the bar served Ms. Phillips (1) in a noticeable state of intoxication and (2) knowing she would soon be driving a car.

The plaintiff's expert witness reviewed Phillips' blood alcohol level and body size and opined that she was served to intoxication and showed signs of intoxication. This was sufficient to get beyond the first prong of the dram shop statute that the bar served Phillips in a noticeable state of intoxication.

The defense showed that, regardless of Phillips' intoxication, Buffalo's never knew she would soon be driving. Conversely, the plaintiffs argued that Buffalo's knew she would soon be driving either by a discussion that must have taken place regarding how she would get her car from Oxy-Plus, by a conversation with the bartender, or by the fact that the bar was in an allegedly remote location and knew all of its patrons drove.

The trial court judge, Hon. Joseph C. Iannazzone of the State Court of Gwinnett County, granted summary judgment to Buffalo's Cafe, agreeing that the plaintiffs presented insufficient evidence to prove the second prong of the dram shop statute that the bar knew or reasonably should have known that Ms. Phillips would soon be driving.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. The appellate panel agreed with the plaintiffs and reversed the trial court ruling. Buffalo's moved to have the court of appeals reconsider their opinion. Upon reconsideration, while one of the three judges reversed his opinion, agreed with Buffalo's and drafted a dissenting opinion, the majority, by a four to three vote, held that a jury question remained as to whether Buffalo's Cafe knew, or should have known that, she would be driving soon after leaving the bar.

Buffalo's Cafe petitioned the Supreme Court of Georgia to accept this case, arguing that the court of appeals' decision essentially rewrote dram shop liability by allowing the plaintiffs to bypass summary judgment with insufficient evidence that the bar had knowledge the driver would soon be driving.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed the plaintiffs had presented insufficient evidence under the second prong of the dram shop statute and held the court of appeals ruling would have the effect of placing an improper affirmative duty on purveyors of alcohol.

The Supreme Court noted this would have required providers of alcohol to determine the method by which patrons plan to depart business establishments and how patrons plan to get home. That created an affirmative duty which exceeded the duty established by the legislature. In ruling for the defense, the Supreme Court held that circumstantial evidence that an alcohol server does business in a remote location and most of its customers drive to the servers place of business is not sufficient to show that a server knew a customer would soon be driving.

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