By Kathleen Hopkins | Asbury Park Press
In response to a recent state Supreme Court decision in an Ocean County case, an assemblyman has introduced a bill that would prohibit drunk drivers from suing the establishments that served them liquor.
TRENTON – In response to a recent state Supreme Court decision in an Ocean County case, an assemblyman has introduced a bill that would prohibit drunk drivers from suing the establishments that served them liquor.
Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, introduced the bill Wednesday in response to a Supreme Court decision June 1 that allows a Brick man to sue a Toms River restaurant that served him alcohol before he crashed his motorcycle into a car in 2006.
Amodeo said his bill is aimed at closing a loophole in the law created by the Supreme Court decision.
“Our state’s laws wrongly allow drunk drivers to avoid personal responsibility for their own awful decision to get behind the wheel after drinking,” Amodeo said. “Operators of casinos, bars and restaurants shouldn’t have to worry about frivolous lawsuits by those who have no personal accountability for their own destructive behavior.”
Amodeo said the Supreme Court decision in the Ocean County case known as Voss vs. Tranquilino was the inspiration for the bill.
In it, a split court said that Frederic Voss, 47, of Brick was not barred by state law from suing Tiffany’s Restaurant on Route 37 in Toms River.
Voss had been drinking there on Nov. 9, 2006, before being injured in a motorcycle accident on Hooper Avenue in Toms River with motorist Kristoffe Tranquilino. Voss’ blood-alcohol level after the accident was .196 percent, or nearly 2 ½ times the legal limit of .08 percent.
Voss’ lawsuit against Tranquilino was dismissed on the basis of a 1997 amendment to the state’s automobile insurance law precluding drunk drivers from recovering damages for injuries suffered in drunken-driving accidents. Lawyers for Tiffany’s tried to have Voss’ lawsuit against the restaurant dismissed, based on the amendment to the automobile insurance law, but Judge John A. Peterson in Ocean County allowed it to proceed under the earlier law designed to hold tavern owners responsible for overserving patrons. That spurred a series of appeals by Tiffany’s.
The Appellate Division of Superior Court upheld Peterson’s ruling last year, saying that to immunize liquor establishments from such claims would be against the state’s policy to curb drunken driving. A five-member majority on the Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Division, saying the 1987 law was not in conflict with the clause in the auto insurance reform law. Two justices, Barry Albin and Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, however, dissented, saying the insurance law barring drunk drivers from suing was crystal clear, and the court majority took it upon themselves to rewrite it.
“The court clearly defied the will of the Legislature when issuing this decision, and I encourage the leadership in both houses to consider (Amodeo’s bill) as soon as possible,” said Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, a group aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Voss v. Tranquilino allows a convicted drunk driver to use our court system to profit from the poor choices he made, at the expense of New Jersey’s business community,” Rayner said. “This decision was a kick in the gut to New Jersey’s restaurateurs. (The bill) is the first step toward protecting our business community from the Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the law.”
Amodeo said his bill also would prevent passengers riding in cars driven by people they know to be drunk from suing the establishment that served the driver.
“We all enjoy going out and having a good time, but there has to be a point where we have to be responsible for ourselves,” Amodeo said.