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A recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling reversed a trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals decision which stated that Georgia Dram Shop Act only applies to restaurants and bars where alcohol is served on the premises. The Supreme Court ruling said that convenience stores may be held liable when they sell alcohol to people who are obviously intoxicated if those people then drove and injured others.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Supreme Court said that convenience store employees often do have an opportunity to observe how the customer arrived and how he/she will depart. Additionally, even if a store employee may not have an opportunity to determine how intoxicated a person is, it does not mean that the convenience store cannot be held liable

This decision was the result of a fatal auto accident in which a drunk driver, who was noticeably intoxicated, purchased a 12-pack of beer, and then got behind the wheel. He hit a van head-on, killing himself and five other people, and injuring several others. The drunk driver’s blood alcohol was twice the legal limit at the time of the accident. The Supreme Court ruling means that if the convenience store knew, or should have known, the customer was intoxicated, and would soon drive, it can be held liable for the sale of alcohol to the intoxicated patron.

The case will now be sent back to the trial court where it will be set for trial. The parties may settle the case or a jury will determine liability and damages. Did this convenience store comply with the law? Were employees trained to determine signs of intoxication before selling alcohol to any patrons? Did they ignore obvious signs of intoxication? Are they like many big businesses who decide that their bottom line is better served by potentially settling a few lawsuits rather than implementing effective alcohol policies and employee training that may otherwise offend some patrons and save the lives of many others?

According to the new standard established by the Supreme Court, in order to hold the store liable, it must be proven that the sale of the beer went directly to the drunk driver who eventually caused the accident. It is also essential to show that at the time of the sale, the man was visibly intoxicated. This may well be the most difficult aspect of bringing a Dram Shop Act lawsuit. No one will argue that the impaired driver is blameless. However, at a certain point the intoxicated person loses the ability to make rational decisions, such as further alcohol consumption. Dram Shop liability is an addition to, not a substitute for, the liability and damages paid by the intoxicated driver. Tavern and store owners sell liquor for profit; the least they can do is assess whether a purchaser is intoxicated at likely to injure others at the time of their purchase. Making them pay damages if they refuse or fail to make that assessment (or are negligent in not seeing the obvious) will make all of us safer.

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association as well as their ABA Advisory Committee, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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