D'Amico v. Christie

Decision Date17 December 1987
Citation518 N.E.2d 896,524 N.Y.S.2d 1,71 N.Y.2d 76
Parties, 518 N.E.2d 896, 62 A.L.R.4th 1, 56 USLW 2371 Theodore C. D'AMICO, Appellant, v. Kenneth D. CHRISTIE, Defendant, and Schlegel Corp. et al., Respondents. Sharyn HENRY et al., as Executrices of Arthur B. Stockdale et al., Deceased, Appellants, v. Jessie VANN, Jr., Defendant, and Monroe Tube Company, Inc., Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

KAYE, Judge.

These appeals present the common issue whether employers or an employees' association should be liable for injuries caused by the off-premises drunk driving of adult, off-duty employees who have consumed intoxicants. We conclude that neither the Dram Shop Act nor the common law encompasses such liability.

D'Amico v. Christie

After leaving work at Schlegel Corporation on Friday, June 13, 1980, defendant Kenneth Christie attended a picnic at Powder Mill Park near Rochester, some distance from Schlegel's plant. The event was organized by the Schlegel Social and Athletic Association (the Association), a voluntary society formed by Schlegel employees. The sole purpose of the Association was to organize two annual members-only social functions, a Christmas party and a summer picnic. Association members themselves set up the picnic, cooked, and cleaned up the site. Food and beverages were purchased out of a fund made up of members' monthly dues of $1 and the proceeds of $5 ticket sales. At the picnic, cans of beer were kept on ice, freely available, in plastic-lined trash cans. Christie spent about four hours at the picnic and may have consumed as many as 6 or 8 12-ounce cans of beer. He left at approximately 10:30 P.M. and drove to Michael's Tavern, where he had arranged to meet friends. He continued drinking beer there, and left some time between 1:00 and 2:00 A.M. Shortly after 2:30 that morning, as he was driving home, Christie entered Interstate 490 on an exit ramp and drove west in the eastbound lane until he collided head-on with a car driven by plaintiff Theodore D'Amico, injuring him seriously. Christie later pleaded guilty to a charge of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, in the Town of Brighton Justice Court.

D'Amico then brought this action against Christie, Michael's Tavern, Berla Galliger (as president of the Association) and Schlegel, claiming that Christie was liable in common-law negligence, that Michael's Tavern was liable under New York's Dram Shop Act (General Obligations Law § 11-101), that the Association was legally responsible for his injuries because it sold or served the alcohol that caused Christie's intoxication, allowing him to become so drunk that he could not safely drive an automobile, and that Schlegel was responsible for the acts of its employees. At trial, a toxicologist testifying as plaintiff's expert opined that, based on blood samples taken later during the morning of June 14, 1980, Christie had become legally intoxicated before leaving the picnic.

The trial court dismissed the complaint against Schlegel at the close of plaintiff's case and dismissed the complaint against the Association at the close of all the evidence. The jury found Christie liable in negligence and Michael's Tavern liable for a violation of the Dram Shop Act, held D'Amico free of contributory negligence, and awarded damages against those defendants. The Appellate Division, 125 A.D.2d 996, 510 N.Y.S.2d 503, reversed as to Michael's Tavern on grounds not relevant here and upheld the dismissal of the complaints against the Association and Schlegel, noting that the Association had not been engaged in the commercial sale of alcohol. We agree that D'Amico's claims against the Association and Schlegel were properly dismissed.

Henry v. Vann

Plaintiffs, executrices of the estates of Arthur and Evelyn Stockdale, allege that the Stockdales died as a result of injuries they suffered in an automobile accident on December 10, 1984 in Monroe, New York, when their car collided head-on with one negligently driven by defendant Jessie Vann, Jr. Vann, who was intoxicated, had been employed by defendant Monroe Tube Co. as a machine operator until shortly before the accident. Vann worked the second shift at Monroe's plant, starting at 2:30 P.M. He took a break at about 6:30 or 7:00 P.M. After his break, at about 8:30, Vann's foreman smelled alcohol on his breath and noticed his eyes "did not look right." The foreman told Vann he was too intoxicated to perform his duties safely, fired him, and told him to leave the premises. The foreman saw Vann walk out of the plant. Vann got into his car and on his way home, at a point about half a mile from the Monroe plant, he drove his car into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic and collided with the Stockdales' car.

Plaintiffs sued Vann and Monroe, alleging that Monroe was vicariously liable for Vann's acts. Plaintiffs also contended that Monroe's independent act of directing or allowing Vann to drive while too intoxicated to work was negligent and a direct cause of the foreseeable accident that resulted in the Stockdales' deaths. Supreme Court denied Monroe's motion for summary judgment on the cause of action alleging its independent negligence. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that Monroe "violated no legally cognizable duty owing to the decedents." (124 A.D.2d 783, 784, 508 N.Y.S.2d 502.) We agree.

Dram Shop Act Claim

We first consider D'Amico's claim against the Association under the Dram Shop Act (General Obligations Law § 11-101).

At common law, one who provided intoxicating liquor was not liable for injuries caused by the drinker, who was held solely responsible. Excessive alcohol consumption was deemed to be the proximate cause of injuries produced by the inebriate; selling or furnishing alcohol to an adult who elected to become intoxicated was not viewed as the root of the resulting harm (see, e.g., Reid v. Terwilliger, 116 N.Y. 530, 533, 22 N.E. 1091; Mead v. Stratton, 87 N.Y. 493, 496; Bertholf v. O'Reilly, 74 N.Y. 509, 524; Allen v. County of Westchester, 109 A.D.2d 475, 492 N.Y.S.2d 772, appeal dismissed 66 N.Y.2d 915, 498 N.Y.S.2d 1027, 489 N.E.2d 773; Edgar v. Kajet, 84 Misc.2d 100, 375 N.Y.S.2d 548, affd. 55 A.D.2d 597, 389 N.Y.S.2d 631, lv. dismissed 41 N.Y.2d 802, 393 N.Y.S.2d 1026, 362 N.E.2d 626; Note, Special Project: Social Host Liability for the Negligent Acts of Intoxicated Guests, 70 Cornell L.Rev. 1058, 1063 ).

By the Dram Shop Act, the Legislature created an exception to the common-law rule (see, Note, Liability Under the New York Dram Shop Act, 8 Syracuse L.Rev. 252 ). The statute provides: "Any person who shall be injured in person, property, means of support, or otherwise by any intoxicated person, or by reason of the intoxication of any person, whether resulting in his death or not, shall have a right of action against any person who shall, by unlawfully selling to or unlawfully assisting in procuring liquor for such intoxicated person, have caused or contributed to such intoxication; and in any such action such person shall have a right to recover actual and exemplary damages." As an exception to the common law, the statute must of course be construed narrowly (see, e.g., Valicenti v. Valenze, 68 N.Y.2d 826, 829, 507 N.Y.S.2d 616, 499 N.E.2d 870).

While not literally restricted to actual "dram shops" or commercial taverns (see, e.g., Bartkowiak v. St. Adalbert's R.C. Church Socy., 40 A.D.2d 306, 340 N.Y.S.2d 137), the Dram Shop Act has consistently been read by lower courts as applicable only to sales of alcohol for profit--that is, commercial sales (see, Edgar v. Kajet, 84 Misc.2d 100, 375 N.Y.S.2d 548, affd. 55 A.D.2d 597, 389 N.Y.S.2d 631, supra; Conigliaro v. Franco, 122 A.D.2d 15, 16, 504 N.Y.S.2d 186; Greer v. Ferrizz, 118 A.D.2d 536, 499 N.Y.S.2d 758; Wright v. Sunset Recreation, 91 A.D.2d 701, 457 N.Y.S.2d 606; Gabrielle v. Craft, 75 A.D.2d 939, 438 N.Y.S.2d 84; Kohler v. Wray, 114 Misc.2d 856, 452 N.Y.S.2d 831). Plaintiff urges this court, first, to reject that reading of the statute and, second, even if a commercial sale is necessary, to hold that the facts here satisfy the statutory requirement. We cannot accept either argument.

We find no basis for departing from the consistent interpretation of lower courts that the Dram Shop Act requires a commercial sale of alcohol. That the statute is properly limited to sellers of intoxicating liquors is made plain even by its title: "Compensation for injury caused by the illegal sale of intoxicating liquor." The body of the statute also speaks of "unlawfully selling" alcohol. When the Legislature intended to reach the broader category of alcohol providers--as it did in 1983 in adding General Obligations Law § 11-100, applicable to minors--it said exactly that. General Obligations Law § 11-100, in contrast to the Dram Shop Act, imposes liability for injuries caused by intoxicated individuals who have not reached the legal drinking age upon persons "unlawfully furnishing" alcoholic beverages to them. Nor does anything in the long history of the Dram Shop Act support the broader reading plaintiff now urges upon us. The act appears to have uniformly required an alcohol sale as the predicate for liability (see, L.1963, ch. 576, § 1).

In the end, plaintiff's plea is that the statute should include all alcohol providers because of the indisputable threat to society posed by drunk drivers. We are, however, constrained in applying a statute by the unequivocal intent expressed...

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