By John O’Brien | Legal Newsline, 9/15/11

A recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court has the potential to decimate the hospitality industry, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan said Wednesday.

Two bills have been introduced in the state Legislature that seek to overturn the court’s decision in Voss v. Tranquilino, which held that a restaurant customer who is served alcohol and drunkenly causes a wreck when he or she leaves can sue the restaurant.

“I look at this recent Voss decision, for example, and the Supreme Court is going to potentially take down the whole hospitality industry… Have we kind of lost our way a little bit in terms of who’s responsible for what?” said Cryan, a Democrat.

Cryan made the remarks at the Fall Membership Luncheon held by the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, a group that has been highly critical of the decision.

The case stemmed from a 2006 incident in which Fredrick Voss crashed his motorcycle into a car and injured himself.

His blood alcohol level was nearly two-and-a-half times the legal limit. He pled guilty to a DWI charge but later filed suit against Tiffany’s Restaurant in Toms River under the state’s Dram Shop Act.

An appeals court ruled that the act provides the exclusive civil remedy for injuries resulting from the negligent service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person by a liquor licensee. The state Supreme Court upheld the decision in June.

Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo introduced a bill weeks later that would overturn the decision. Democrat Jeff Van Drew is the sponsor of an identical bill filed in the state Senate.

“We’ve got to be able to give businesses and physicians and those who are impacted by what we (legislators) do some stability and some certainty in the marketplace,” Cryan said about tort reform. “And hopefully together we can do that.”

The Supreme Court wrote that its ruling in Voss would deter drunk driving.

“An intoxicated person is deterred from driving drunk by losing the right to sue under Title 39 for insurance coverage for his injuries. On the other hand, permitting an injured drunk driver to file an action against a liquor establishment and its servers for serving a visibly intoxicated patron similarly advances the goal of deterring drunk driving,” the Court wrote.

“In allowing the latter form of action to proceed, rather than barring it by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the application of established principles of comparative negligence will apportion properly the responsibility for damages as between dram shop parties and the injured driver.”

NJLRA executive director Marcus Rayner said the court’s decision “defied the will of the Legislature to the detriment of business and common sense.”