Dram Shop Defense

By June 18, 2011 Commercial Litigation

SUMMARY JUDGMENT AVOIDS TRIAL FOR 7-ELEVEN IN DRAM SHOP SUIT

Highlights

  • Cummins & White, LLP, successfully defended convenience retailing giant 7-Eleven against a liquor liability claim directed toward the corporation and its “deep pockets.”
  • When depositions uncovered flaws in the case, Cummins & White attorneys moved to quickly resolve the case through summary judgment, saving substantial time, fees, and further expenditures.

Attorneys

Case Study

Cummins & White, LLP, successfully defended 7-Eleven, Inc., in a suit alleging that a store clerk sold alcohol to a minor who was later involved in a car accident in which the driver crashed into a tree, injuring all occupants.  The plaintiff, who was a passenger and sustained serious injuries, sought significant damages, claiming that 7-Eleven was liable for the injuries based on California’s “Dram Shop Act.”  Attorneys Charles Murawski focused on weak allegations and successfully received a summary judgmentin favor of 7-Eleven, ending the case before trial.

Background

A minor purchased alcohol at a 7-Eleven and proceeded with his underage friends to a commercial complex to drink it.  When done, the purchaser of the alcohol and a friend left in a truck, and four others followed in a sport utility vehicle (SUV).  The driver of the SUV was speeding and driving recklessly.  He swerved and struck a tree, injuring all occupants.

The plaintiff, a female passenger in the back seat of the SUV who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car, receiving numerous injuries.  She was hospitalized for one week, and her medical bills totaled approximately $82,000.  The driver’s automobile insurance company paid each passenger $200,000—the policy limit.

The plaintiff then filed suit against 7-Eleven, seeking significant damages, claiming that 7-Eleven was liable for injuries resulting from the accident based on California’s “Dram Shop Act,” a statute that imposes criminal and civil liability for certain sales of alcohol.  Under the law, civil liability may be imposed if a restaurant or store sells alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated” minor who subsequently causes an auto accident.

Legal Strategy

Upon review, it was clear that the facts of the case were unusual.  Importantly, the 7-Eleven clerk did not sell any alcohol to the person who caused the accident in question.  Surveillance video showed that the clerk asked for identification from, and sold the alcohol, to a person who was not in the SUV involved in the accident.

Despite the surveillance footage, the plaintiff contended that 7-Eleven also “sold” or “furnished” alcohol to the purchaser’s underage friend, who accompanied the purchaser to the store and who was in the vehicle when the accident occurred.  The plaintiff alleged that the friend caused the accident by grabbing the wheel from the driver.

Typically, laws such as the Dram Shop Act would not provide a likely basis for summary judgment, as a plaintiff could claim there are facts that require submission to a jury.  However, Cummins & White moved for summary judgment based on fatal flaws in the plaintiff’s theory.  First, 7-Eleven did not “sell” or “furnish” alcohol to the person alleged to have caused the accident, as those terms have been interpreted in the case law.  Second, the person alleged to have caused the accident was not “obviously intoxicated” (if intoxicated at all) when the alcohol was sold to his friend.  The judge agreed, and the case was disposed of without trial.

Result/Implication

The success of the motion for summary judgment resulted from the combined efforts of the Cummins & White attorneys, who focused on protecting the interests of longtime client 7-Eleven in a quick and economical manner.

“Cummins & White is committed to defending clients from frivolous lawsuits, which often can be directed toward corporations or businesses viewed to have “deep pockets,” Murawski said.  “We’re pleased that our efforts paid off, and the judge saw through the plaintiff’s attempts to keep 7-Eleven as a defendant in the case.”