Recently we received both clarity and justice in a case our firm tried in Mobile County, Alabama. We wrote about the result in the November issue of The Jere Beasley Report. Clarity on the law was first received from the Alabama Supreme Court and, subsequently, justice was obtained for our clients in the case that involved the death of a loved one. Liability in this case was based on what is known as a Dram Shop Act. The case settled just minutes before the jury returned a $12.4 million verdict. So, our clients received justice and do not have to go through another appeal process.
Most every state has a Dram Shop law, which holds sellers of alcohol responsible if they overserve a person whose intoxication results in injury or death to another. The facts in our case established that on June 6, 2015, Willie McMillian spent several hours at the Mobile Greyhound Park where he was served alcohol. Within minutes after leaving the track, McMillian crashed his car into the back of the car our clients were in. McMillian, who was traveling 97 mph when he struck our clients’ vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of more than .240, three times the legal limit.
This case was originally set for trial on May 14, 2018, before a judge different than the judge who actually presided over the trial a few weeks ago. Prior to the first trial setting, the original judge told us he had been thinking about the evidence in our case and he did not believe we could prove our case at trial. That judge then dismissed the case. In his order of dismissal, the judge ruled that we could not use circumstantial evidence to prove that McMillian was visibly intoxicated at the time he was served alcohol by the track employees.
We filed our case, including our death claim under both the Dram Shop Act and Alabama’s Wrongful Death Act. We believed the death claim had to be brought under the Dram Shop Act, but were not aware of any death case that had been brought under any theory other than Alabama’s Wrongful Death Act. So, we filed our case under both Acts. The only damages under Alabama’s Wrongful Death Act are for punitive damages. We argued that the Dram Shop Act allows for compensatory and punitive damages in both the personal injury and death claims. The Defendant agreed that we were entitled to punitive damages for the injury cases, but that in order to recover both we had to prove a heightened standard of culpability (wanton or willful conduct) and that we had to prove liability by clear and convincing evidence as opposed to the normal burden of proof, which is a preponderance of the evidence.
The Defendant argued that we were not entitled to any relief for the death claim. The trial judge agreed and ruled that we could not bring an action for death under either the Dram Shop Act or Alabama’s Wrongful Death Act.
We appealed the trial court’s rulings to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Court agreed with us and issued an opinion that has changed the landscape of Alabama Dram Shop Law. The three main holdings from the Alabama Supreme Court are:
- circumstantial evidence can be used to establish visible intoxication,
- a death claim can be brought under the Dram Shop and the decedent is entitled to compensatory and punitive damages, and
- the parties are entitled to punitive damages if they prove their claim without having to prove a heightened standard of conduct or a heightened burden of proof.
The practical effect this has on Dram Shop Law in Alabama is momentous. As an example, before this opinion, Defendants would argue the Dram Shop Act was a strict liability statute and the only issue was whether the Defendant sold alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated. Defendants would argue its policies, procedures and training were not relevant to whether a person was visibly intoxicated when served.
Our Mobile case has changed all of that. Actually, the case brought Dram Shop Law in line with all other case law as it relates to materiality, relevance and the evidentiary support for those concepts.
Now, the fact a server had no training whatsoever in the service of alcohol is relevant and material as to whether it would be more likely they would not recognize a visibly intoxicated patron and continue to serve them.
Evidence that a Defendant did nothing to try and prevent service to intoxicated patrons is now admissible. A Defendant’s bad conduct related to alcohol service is now admissible if it makes it more likely they would have served alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated. In the Supreme Court’s opinion, the justices said the jury was to consider the “totality of the circumstances” when determining whether a Defendant sold alcohol to someone who was visibly intoxicated.
In addition to expanding evidentiary issues, the Supreme Court’s opinion also held that the family of a person killed as a result of a violation of the Dram Shop Act was entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages. The Court said that injury to the person under the law included death. This holding is momentous and will help protect innocent people. We know of no other case under Alabama law, prior to this opinion, that allowed the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages for death.
And finally, the Supreme Court held that if the Plaintiffs prove their case, they are automatically entitled to punitive damages without having to prove wanton or willful conduct and without having to prove it by clear and convincing evidence.
Armed with the clarity of the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion, our lawyers went back to trial before a different judge in Mobile County, Alabama. They tried the case for a little over a week before returning their verdict. The clarity expressed in the Supreme Court’s opinion in our case has forever changed Alabama law for the better. This change will help to hold those who enjoy the privilege of selling alcohol responsible when they do so in violation of Alabama law. It will also help bring justice to those families who have lost loved ones or been injured by overserved patrons.
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, visit the Report online and subscribe.