By Marcus Rayner | Op-Ed, The Asbury Park Press, 6/29/11

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a decision allowing a drunken motorcyclist to sue the restaurant that served him alcohol for the injuries he sustained when he crashed into a car. And no, this is not a joke.

The case stems from a 2006 accident in which 46-year-old Brick resident Fredrick Voss decided to drive his motorcycle home after drinking too much at Tiffany’s restaurant in Toms River. He pleaded guilty to a DUI charge after he drove the motorcycle through a red light and into a car. His blood alcohol level was nearly 2½ times the legal limit.

Pleading guilty to a DUI charge would prompt most people to accept responsibility for endangering themselves and others. It is not the kind of thing from which most would try to profit. In a nod to how notions of personal responsibility – and our courts’ appetite for lawsuits – have changed, however, Voss took the driver of the car he hit, Kristoffe Tranquilino, and Tiffany’s restaurant, to court.

The problem that Tranquilino and Tiffany’s encountered in court is that New Jersey law hasn’t kept pace with diminishing notions of personal responsibility. The Dram Shop Act, which was enacted in 1987, allows people who suffer a loss to sue licensed servers who knowingly served an intoxicated person prior to an accident. While it doesn’t explicitly state who can sue under the act, it’s usually the victim of a drunken driver suing an establishment – not the drunken driver himself.

A more recent law passed in 1997 amended motor vehicle insurance law to prevent drivers convicted of a DUI charge from cashing in on insurance claims. It states that a drunk driver “shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.” The court’s 5-2 decision in Voss v. Tranquilino, however, was galling. The majority ignored the more recent statute and common sense and concluded that drunken drivers should be free to pursue claims as well.

In his dissent, Justice Barry Albin accused the majority of “(rewriting) a clear and unambiguous statute under the dubious assumption that the Legislature did not mean what it said.”

Our civil justice system wasn’t intended to offer financial incentives for irresponsible behavior – especially when it’s restaurateurs and consumers who are being forced to subsidize the court’s interpretation of the law.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the average restaurateur has an annual profit margin of 4 to 6 percent. You can bet that the higher insurance costs resulting from this decision will translate into higher prices for New Jersey patrons.

Unfortunately, this decision is merely the latest example of why New Jersey is gaining a national reputation as a lawsuit magnet. Nonsense decisions like these enhance New Jersey’s reputation as the Lawsuit State, and they are one of the reasons why so many people from outside of the state flock to New Jersey to sue. Today, 93 percent of the plaintiffs suing pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey in large class actions are from outside of the state. And if you think lawsuits only affect bigger industries, think again: One in five small businesses in New Jersey, many with fewer than 10 employees, report that they have been sued in the last few years as well.

Before our state suppresses entrepreneurship in yet another of its industries, it’s time we engage our elected officials in the Legislature about enacting meaningful civil justice reform to stop the kind of legalized extortion that is occurring in Voss v. Tranquilino.

Several bills pending before the Legislature send the message that litigation tourism isn’t the kind of business New Jersey welcomes. One bill, A-3333/S-2855, would enact a host of measures to modernize New Jersey’s civil justice laws, keeping pace with and suppressing social trends to profit from the system.

It’s time we take our state back from an out-of-control civil justice system and decrease the number of frivolous cases filed in the first place. As New Jersey residents, consumers and taxpayers who pay the price for decisions like Voss v. Tranquilino, we owe ourselves this much.