There's a lot of misinformation out there about personal injury law in general, and dram shop law in particular. While we recognize that we can't correct every mistaken person out there, we hope that talking about some of the cases we've taken and how different aspects of the law come into play will do something to help the public better understand the reality of our work.
The case we'll examine today involved a middle-aged man who died after his vehicle was struck by an intoxicated woman driving the wrong way down a highway in Fort Worth. A toxicology report determined her BAC to be almost three times the legal limit, and also indicated that she was under the influence of marijuana prior to the crash. Despite the involvement of another intoxicant, there's every reason to believe we'll be able to hold any bars that may have contributed to this tragedy accountable once we obtain more evidence.
Two Lives Ended After Wrong-way Highway Collision
This case originates from events occurring in early January of 2019. Our client was traveling east on Interstate 30 when the intoxicated driver's vehicle collided with his head-on. According to media reports, she had been traveling the wrong way for more than eight miles at the time of the collision, and never stopped even after police deployed spike strips to slow down her car.
Obviously, given how incredibly hard it is to miss the many warning signs of entering a highway traveling the wrong way, we generally assume that a wrong-way collision involved some sort of intoxication. In this case, that assumption once again turned out to be well-founded. While the at-fault driver also died in the collision, a postmortem toxicology report determined her BAC to be a .238, almost three times the legal limit, and also suggested that she had been under the influence of cannabis.
Posts to social media indicate that the drunk driver visited a brewpub, HopFusion Ale Works, the night of the crash, but that establishment closes at 11 pm, well before the crash occurred at 3:30 am. This makes it reasonably likely that she left HopFusion, possibly already over the legal limit, traveled to another alcohol vendor, and continued drinking for several more hours before finally starting to head home.
Why A Defendant's Drug Use Isn't A Provider's Best Defense
At this point, you might be wondering, "How can you sue a bar for over-serving someone who caused a crash if they had also gotten high around the same time? It's got to be pretty hard to prove that it was the booze and not the pot that caused her to drive the wrong way." This raises an important legal principle that is key to any successful dram shop claim: proving that intoxication by alcohol was the proximate cause of the injuries or deaths sustained, or the event without which they would not have occurred.
In other words, contrary to what some people might suppose, attorneys can't magically turn any case where someone was driving while intoxicated and was injured or killed into a dram shop cause of action. For example, if someone is driving down the road after getting toasted at a bar and another car engaged in street racing plows into theirs, there's no relationship between the alcohol consumption and the injuries, which means there's no dram shop claim.
It's true that when someone consumed other substances as well as alcohol before a crash, it opens up a unique avenue for the alcohol vendor's defense team that they wouldn't otherwise have access to. In that situation, they're entirely within their rights to say, "You can't prove this happened because of the alcohol our client served. It could just as easily have been the Xanax or painkillers they took as a chaser."
However, in our experience, when both alcohol and other drugs are involved in a crash caused by intoxication, alcohol is usually by far the largest contributor to what happened. Obviously, it's never a good idea to get behind the wheel after taking any drug that affects cognition. But your average cannabis high simply isn't enough to make someone think it's a sane idea to drive the wrong way down a limited access highway. That level of obliviousness to reality requires either much stronger drugs or massive amounts of alcohol, which, with the right evidence and expert witnesses, will probably make it fairly straightforward to argue for over-service as the proximate cause.
Obviously, it's appalling and tragic that this woman's terrible decisions resulted in both her death and that of someone else. But it would be equally galling if businesses, who effectively made a promise to us all to serve alcohol responsibly when they got their liquor license, then broke it for the sake of a little extra profit, were able to get away with it more or less scot-free.
As our investigation proceeds, we fully expect to determine which establishments' negligence bear some of the responsibility for these horrific events, so that we can obtain some measure of justice for our clients, as well as deter them from similar behavior in the future.