By Kathleen Hopkins | Asbury Park Press
Who is legally responsible when an intoxicated motorist is injured in a traffic accident?
Is it the drunken driver? Or is it whoever served him the booze?
That is a question the New Jersey Supreme Court will take up in an appeal that some observers say will have a broad impact on insurance costs, small businesses that serve alcohol, and deterrence of drunken driving.
The question will be entertained in an appeal brought by a Toms River restaurant being sued by a Brick man who was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash after leaving the eatery drunk.
The accident occurred on Hooper Avenue in Toms River on Nov. 9, 2006, when motorcyclist Frederick Voss, now 46, crashed into a car driven by Kristoffe Tranquilino after leaving Tiffany’s Restaurant on Route 37 in Toms River, where he had been drinking.
The case pits two New Jersey laws against one another. One is a 1997 amendment to the state’s automobile insurance law that precludes intoxicated drivers from recovering damages for injuries suffered in drunken-driving accidents. The other is a 1987 law designed to hold liquor establishments responsible for negligently overserving alcohol to patrons.
“There are two conflicting laws, so the Supreme Court is going to decide which law trumps the other,” said Andrew Kiraly, general manager of The Office Lounge in Toms River, who is among tavern operators watching for the outcome of the case.
Voss, who ran a red light and suffered multiple fractures and permanent injuries after being propelled 100 feet in the air upon impact with the car, brought a lawsuit against Tiffany’s, alleging he was negligently overserved alcohol.
“Mr. Voss and two or three friends pulled up to the bar that evening on their big Harley-Davidsons and went inside with their leather motorcycle jackets on,” said Voss’ attorney, William A. Wenzel. “It was easy for the bartenders to see they were riding motorcycles.”
Voss proceeded to drink mixed drinks and shots for several hours before leaving the bar and getting into the accident, Wenzel said. His blood-alcohol content was .196 percent, or nearly 2 1/2 times the legal threshold of intoxication. He later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.
Voss brought suit against Tranquilino, who was not injured, but the suit against the motorist was dismissed on the basis of the law that bars such claims by drunk drivers.
Attorney Richard S. Ranieri, representing Tiffany’s, tried to have the lawsuit against his client dismissed on the same grounds, but Superior Court Judge John A. Peterson Jr. in Ocean County ruled that Voss could proceed with it. In April, a panel of judges with the Appellate Division of Superior Court upheld Peterson’s ruling, saying that to immunize liquor establishments from such claims would be against the state’s policy to curb drunken driving.
Because of the two conflicting laws, Ranieri asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the decision. The state’s high court agreed to hear the appeal, although no date has been set for arguments.
Citing the public interest in decreasing drunken driving, Ranieri contends in court papers that barring intoxicated motorists from recovering damages in lawsuits would send a firm message about “the increased risks of driving while intoxicated.”
Repeated attempts to reach Ranieri for comment were unsuccessful.
The New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, an organization seeking to curb what it calls “lawsuit abuse,” maintains that drunken drivers should be held responsible for their mistakes and not be allowed to benefit from them.
“The Legislature was clear in 1997 when it passed legislation saying that drivers convicted of DWI shouldn’t be heading to court to sue others for injuries they cause to themselves,” said AnnMarie McDonald, a spokeswoman for the organization. “Drunk drivers shouldn’t be reimbursed for poor choices, nor should law-abiding citizens have to pay for it through higher insurance premiums.”
McDonald said a Supreme Court decision in favor of Voss would lead to increased insurance costs for liquor establishments.
“New Jersey is an expensive state to do business in, and that’s one more cost businesses will have to absorb,” she said.