Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, 091720 NJSC, A-9-10-19

Docket NºA-9-10-19
Opinion JudgeALBIN, JUSTICE
Party NameEstate of Brandon Tyler Narleski, deceased by Administrator ad Prosequendum, John A. Narleski and Lori Anniello-Narleski, and John A. Narleski, individually, Plaintiffs, v. Nicholas Gomes, Orquivanes Gomes, and Sergio Gomes, Defendants, and Amboy Food Liquor and News Inc., a/k/a Krauszers, and Krauszers Food and Liquor, Inc., a/k/a Krauszers ...
AttorneyRussell Macnow argued the cause for appellant/cross- respondent (Russell Macnow, on the briefs). Mark R. Scirocco argued the cause for respondents/cross-appellants (Law Offices of Robert A. Scirocco, attorneys; Mark R. Scirocco and Robert A. Scirocco, on the briefs). Jeffrey S. Jacobson argued th...
Judge PanelALBIN, J., CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.
Case DateSeptember 17, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of New Jersey

Estate of Brandon Tyler Narleski, deceased by Administrator ad Prosequendum, John A. Narleski and Lori Anniello-Narleski, and John A. Narleski, individually, Plaintiffs,

v.

Nicholas Gomes, Orquivanes Gomes, and Sergio Gomes, Defendants,

and

Amboy Food Liquor and News Inc., a/k/a Krauszers, and Krauszers Food and Liquor, Inc., a/k/a Krauszers Food & Liquor, Inc., Defendants/Third-Party Plaintiffs/Respondents/Cross-Appellants,

v.

Mercedes Apraez and Zdzislaw Zwierzynski, Third-Party Defendants,

and

Mark Zwierzynski, Third-Party Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

No. A-9-10-19

Supreme Court of New Jersey

September 17, 2020

Argued March 30, 2020

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 459 N.J.Super. 377 (App. Div. 2019).

Russell Macnow argued the cause for appellant/cross- respondent (Russell Macnow, on the briefs).

Mark R. Scirocco argued the cause for respondents/cross-appellants (Law Offices of Robert A. Scirocco, attorneys; Mark R. Scirocco and Robert A. Scirocco, on the briefs).

Jeffrey S. Jacobson argued the cause for amici curiae New Jersey Civil Justice Institute and American Property Casualty Insurance Association (Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, attorneys; Jeffrey S. Jacobson on the brief).

ALBIN, J., writing for the Court.

The issue before the Court is whether the common law imposes a duty on underage adults -- over the age of eighteen but under twenty-one -- to refrain from making their homes a safe haven for underage guests to consume alcoholic beverages and, if so, the standard for liability if an underage guest, who becomes intoxicated, afterwards drives a motor vehicle and injures or kills a third party.

Nineteen-year-old Mark Zwierzynski permitted underage adult friends to consume alcoholic beverages in his home. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Tyler Narleski and twenty-year-old Nicholas Gomes left the home severely intoxicated. Shortly afterwards, Gomes lost control of his vehicle and crashed. Narleski died at the scene. Gomes's blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit.

Narleski's parents filed a wrongful death action against Gomes, Gomes's parents, and Amboy Food Liquor and News (Amboy), where the underage Narleski purchased the alcohol. In turn, Amboy filed a third-party complaint against Zwierzynski. The trial court granted Zwierzynski's motion for summary judgment, finding that he did not have a duty to supervise his friends. The Appellate Division affirmed, 459 N.J.Super. 377, 399 (App. Div. 2019), but set forth a new rule of law to apply purely prospectively that an underage adult "shall owe a common law duty to injured parties to desist from facilitating the drinking of alcohol by underage adults in his place of residence, regardless of whether he owns, rents, or manages the premises." Id. at 398. The Court granted Zwierzynski's petition for certification and Amboy's cross-petition. 239 N.J. 493-94 (2019).

HELD: An underage adult defendant may be held civilly liable to a third-party drunk driving victim if the defendant facilitated the use of alcohol by making his home available as a venue for underage drinking, regardless of whether he is a leaseholder or titleholder of the property; if the guest causing the crash became visibly intoxicated in the defendant's home; and if it was reasonably foreseeable that the visibly intoxicated guest would leave the residence to operate a motor vehicle and cause injury to another. The duty the Court recognizes today was foreshadowed by precedent and therefore will apply in the case of Zwierzynski.

1. Six decades ago, in Rappaport v. Nichols, the Court recognized a common law cause of action against licensed tavern owners who knowingly serve alcohol to minors or intoxicated patrons who then negligently drive vehicles causing injury to third-party victims. 31 N.J. 188, 202-05 (1959). The Appellate Division in Linn v. Rand extended the rationale of Rappaport to homeowner social hosts. 140 N.J.Super. 212 (App. Div. 1976). The Linn court held that the social host could be held liable in negligence for the injuries suffered by a third-party victim if the host served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest, knowing that the guest was unfit and about to drive and that an accident was reasonably foreseeable. Id. at 217, 219. In the seminal case of Kelly v. Gwinnell, this Court expressly approved of Linn and expanded the doctrine of social host liability to a private residence where an adult host "serves liquor to an adult social guest, knowing both that the guest is intoxicated and will thereafter be operating a motor vehicle." 96 N.J. 538, 547-48 (1984). In that circumstance, the Court held, the social host will be "liable for injuries inflicted on a third party as a result of the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by the adult guest when such negligence is caused by the intoxication." Id. at 548. (pp. 17-21)

2. The Legislature largely codified Kelly in enacting the Social Host Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.5 to -5.8. The Act's text and legislative history refute any argument that the Act was intended to replace or stunt the development of the common law of social host liability in cases where alcohol is provided to intoxicated minors and underage adults. The Court rejects any interpretation of the Act that would lead to the absurd conclusion that the Legislature intended to create a liability-free zone for underage social hosts who knowingly provide alcohol to visibly intoxicated minors and underage adults who negligently cause injury to third parties as a result of their intoxication. (pp. 21-24)

3. The Legislature has expressed the State's strong public policy against underage drinking by adding to the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice a law punishing those who supply alcohol to minors and those who make property available for underage consumption of alcohol. Although N.J.S.A. 2C:33-17(a) and (b) create penal sanctions, not tort liability standards, those statutes underscore the policy steps the State has taken to deter those who might be tempted to accommodate or supply alcoholic beverages for underage drinking. The Court reviews cases in which the Appellate Division touched on the potential relevance of criminal statutes in setting the standard of care for an underage social host who serves alcohol to underage social guests and the continuing development of social host liability law. The Court also notes that statistics show drunk driving remains a significant public health threat. (pp. 25-32)

4. In determining whether to recognize a duty to refrain from conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to others, the Court considers four factors: "the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution." Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 439 (1993). Weighing those factors, the Court concludes that an underage social host, who makes his residence available and facilitates underage drinking, has a duty not to knowingly provide or allow self-service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest and, if a guest becomes visibly intoxicated, to take reasonable steps to prevent the guest from operating a motor vehicle. (pp. 32-39)

5. The Court accordingly establishes the following rule. A plaintiff injured by an intoxicated underage social guest may succeed in a cause of action against an underage social host if the plaintiff can prove by a preponderance of the evidence the following: (1) The social host knowingly permitted and facilitated the consumption of alcoholic beverages to underage guests in a residence under his control. This element does not require that the social host be a leaseholder or titleholder to the property. It is enough that the social host has the ability and apparent authority to give others access to the property; (2) The social host knowingly provided alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest or knowingly permitted the visibly intoxicated underage guest to serve himself or be served by others. It is no defense that the underage guests bought and brought the alcoholic beverages that they or others consumed; (3) The social host knew or reasonably should have known that the visibly intoxicated social guest would leave the premises and operate a motor vehicle and therefore would foreseeably endanger the lives and property of others; (4) The social host did not take any reasonable steps to prevent the intoxicated guest from getting behind the wheel of the vehicle; and (5) The social guest, as a result of intoxication facilitated by the social host, negligently operated a vehicle and proximately caused injury to a third party. (pp. 39-40)

6. That rule was foreshadowed and is the logical extension of the Court's common law jurisprudence and legislative enactments aimed at combatting drunk driving and providing fair compensation for its victims. Applying the duty here is also consistent with the usual rule that the prevailing party who brings a claim that advances the common law should receive the benefit of his efforts. Based on the record before the Court, Zwierzynski is not entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. There are material issues of disputed fact that can be resolved only by a jury. (pp. 40-41)

REVERSED and REMANDED to the trial court.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.

OPINION

ALBIN, JUSTICE

The deterrence of drunk driving has been a preeminent policy goal of legislative enactments and our common law for many decades. Nonetheless, drunk driving remains one of the major causes of carnage on...

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