The Alabama Supreme Court has upheld a $15 million jury verdict against a convenience store and owner in connection with sales of alcohol to an underage driver that resulted in the deaths of a 13-year-old passenger and the serious injuries of two other youths.
Driver, 19, was also seriously injured when the vehicle careened off a public highway in Tuscaloosa County and crashed into a tree. Authorities later concluded the driver was drunk off liquor she purchased from a convenience store that had a reputation for selling alcohol to underage youth.
Subsequently, four lawsuits were filed – and later consolidated in Nineteenth Street Investments v. Robertson et al – against the convenience store under the state’s “Dram Shop Act.” Florida has one two. The statutes are a bit different in their application, which affects who can collect damages and in which situations.
In Florida, F.S. 768.125 spells out liability for injury or damage resulting from intoxication. The statute holds a person who furnishes or sells alcohol to someone of lawful drinking age can’t be liable for damage or injury caused by the resulting intoxication of that person. The only exceptions are:
- Sale or distribution of alcohol to someone under age 21;
- Service of alcohol to a person known to be habitually addicted to the use of alcohol.
In Alabama, Section 6-5-71 of the Alabama Code allows injured parties to pursue damages against an establishment that serves alcohol to someone who “appears, in the totality of the circumstances, to be intoxicated.” The appearance of intoxication is not a basis for the Florida law.
In the current case, stemming from a crash that occurred in May 2007, jurors found in favor of plaintiff, ordering $1.65 million in compensatory damages and $13.5 million in punitive damages against the corporation. During the second phase of the trial, the corporate veil was pierced, and the jury held the owner personally liable for the entire judgment, which included:
- $7 million for mother of the deceased boy in her wrongful death claim;
- $500,000 in punitive damages for mother of the driver;
- $3.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages for one passenger;
- $3 million in punitive and $750,000 in compensatory damages for another passenger.
On appeal, defendants argued they were denied the right to a fair trial based on it’s denial of a challenge to the plaintiff’s preemptory jury strikes. Defendants also argued punitive damage awards were based on prejudice, bias and passion. Further, defendants argued the corporate structure of the company was disregarded such that the corporate veil was erroneously pierced.
The Alabama Supreme Court then issued an order requesting both sides brief and argue three additional issues, including punitive damage award was excessive, whether punitive damages should be assessed per-plaintiff or awarded once and divided among them and finally whether fault by plaintiff should limit punitive damages. Those three matters were of first impression for the state supreme court.
However, when the court wrote to affirm the trial court judgment, it offered no opinion explaining this decision, which was made on Nov. 20, 2015. That decision affirms the 2013 verdict, believed to be the largest ever verdict affirmed by that state’s high court.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Alabama Supreme Court Upholds $15M Verdict in Dram Shop Act Lawsuit, Nov. 24, 2015, Insurance Journal
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