Greenwalt v. Ram Restaurant Corp.

Decision Date26 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-103.,01-103.
Citation2003 WY 77,71 P.3d 717
PartiesDean GREENWALT; Lizabeth Greenwalt; Rachel Greenwalt, a minor, by Dean Greenwalt, her conservator; and Dean Greenwalt, as personal representative for the Estate of John Douglas Greenwalt, Deceased, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. RAM RESTAURANT CORPORATION OF WYOMING, a Wyoming corporation, d/b/a C.B. & Potts & Big Horn Brewing Company; Cheyenne 28, LLC, a Washington Limited Liability Company; and John Does 1-5, Appellees (Defendants).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

John B. "Jack" Speight, Robert T. McCue, and Ian D. Shaw of Hathaway, Speight & Kunz, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Representing Appellant. Argument by Messrs. Speight and Shaw.

Thomas G. Gorman, Richard A. Mincer, and Ryan T. Schelhaas of Hirst & Applegate, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming, Representing Appellee. Argument by Mr. Mincer.

Before HILL, C.J., and GOLDEN, LEHMAN1, KITE, and VOIGT, JJ.

GOLDEN, Justice.

[? 1] In response to a complaint asserting a wrongful death and negligence claim against Appellees' restaurant and bar, the district court certified a question of law concerning the constitutionality of a statute that limits a liquor vendor's liability when that vendor has legally provided alcohol to another. The statute at issue, Wyo. Stat. Ann. ? 12-8-301 (LexisNexis 2001), provides that no person who has legally provided alcoholic liquor or malt beverage to any other person is liable for damages caused by the intoxication of the other person. Appellants (Greenwalts) are the family of John Douglas Greenwalt (Mr. Greenwalt) and the personal representative of his estate, and they contend that this statute violates the equal protection and due process rights provided by both the United States and the Wyoming Constitutions and further violates the open courts provision found in the Wyoming Constitution.

[? 2] We hold that ? 12-8-301 does not infringe upon the fundamental right of access to the courts declared in Article 1, Section 8 of the Wyoming Constitution, and that ? 301 does not infringe upon any other fundamental interest and does not create an inherently suspect classification as alleged by the Greenwalts. Based upon a review of ? 301 under this Court's rational basis test, we conclude that ? 301 does not violate the equal protection guarantees of either the United States or Wyoming Constitutions.


[? 3] Is Wyo. Stat. Ann. ? 12-8-301 unconstitutional?


[? 4] Mr. Greenwalt died in a motor vehicle accident caused by Quay Sampsell. Appellee Ram Restaurant Corporation of Wyoming (Ram) operated a restaurant and bar in Cheyenne, Wyoming, called C.B. & Potts & Big Horn Brewing Company (restaurant). On the night of the accident, Sampsell purchased alcohol in the restaurant's bar, and later, while driving his vehicle, collided with Mr. Greenwalt's vehicle, killing Mr. Greenwalt. After the accident, Sampsell's blood alcohol level tested at .217. Sampsell v. State, 2001 WY 12, ? 3, 17 P.3d 724, ? 3 (Wyo.2001).

[? 5] Greenwalts sued Ram for wrongful death and negligence, contending that it was the sales and service of alcohol to Sampsell that was the direct and proximate cause of Mr. Greenwalt's death. Ram filed a motion to dismiss denying liability pursuant to ? 12-8-301. The parties jointly filed for certification of the constitutional issue and, on June 19, 2001, this Court granted certification of the question presented.

Parties' Contentions

[? 6] Greenwalts contend that ? 12-8-301 is special legislation that violates both the state and federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection, due process, and access to the courts by treating victims of liquor vendor negligence differently from all other tort victims. Greenwalts argue that this class of victims is statutorily prohibited from receiving redress in a Wyoming court of law because they believe that ? 301 grants immunity to liquor vendors. Claiming that the open courts provision is violated by any statute that bars a victim of negligence from bringing suit in Wyoming courts, Greenwalts reason that the statute violates the fundamental right to access the courts and due process protections. Greenwalts further contend that by violating the fundamental right of access to courts, the legislatively created classification requires strict scrutiny review, and that review reveals that it does not serve any compelling state interest and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

[? 7] In response, Ram contends that the statute is neither special legislation that provides absolute immunity to liquor vendors nor a law that abolishes a well-recognized common law cause of action. Noting that the common law rule is one of non-liability for liquor vendors, Ram asserts that the statute modifies this non-liability rule by creating a cause of action against those persons violating the extensive mandates governing sales and service of alcoholic beverages found in Title 12 of the Wyoming statutes. Ram states that the purpose of the open courts provision is to guarantee access to the courts for the administration of justice for recognized rights that have a known remedy and argues that the Greenwalts' contentions concerning the open courts provision amount to a request that this Court determine that there is a fundamental right to sue anyone who allegedly causes injury or death. Ram warns that such a determination would remove all limitations from tort actions and preclude the legislature from altering, repealing, or restricting the common law within constitutional bounds.

[? 8] Our treatment proceeds along the following lines. First, it reviews this Court's past common law decisions involving liquor vendor liability because they provide an important historical and analytical backdrop for consideration of the constitutional questions. Next, it reviews the nature and scope of the legislative department's exercise of its police power in its central law-making role under our form of government. Then, it explains the legislative department's exercise of its police power in its 1985 enactment and subsequent 1986 amendment of ? 301 which codified and then expanded the common law decisions of this Court thus creating a statutory tort cause of action for victims of the tortious behavior of intoxicated consumers unlawfully furnished intoxicating liquor by liquor providers. It parses ? 301 and explains its elements. Next, it reviews the heavy burden that must be carried by a litigant who challenges the constitutionality of a statute. In this review, we identify and comment on the pertinent court access and equal protection guarantees located within the provisions of the United States and Wyoming Constitutions. Next, it reviews the elements of the rational basis test used in equal protection analysis. Finally, it applies those elements to ? 301 in order to determine whether that section passes or fails equal protection muster.

[? 9] As we begin our review, we accept, as do all members of the judicial department, that decision-making in response to a constitutional challenge to a product of the legislative and executive departments of our state government is a burden profoundly felt by the judicial department which is invested under our constitution with the responsibility to resolve the challenge. This Court cannot refuse to bear that burden. Such is the special nature of the judicial enterprise. Of that, Justice Stephen Breyer has written

[t]hat enterprise, Chief Justice Marshall explained, may call upon a judge to decide "between the Government and the man whom that Government is prosecuting; between the most powerful individual in the community and the poorest and most unpopular." Independence of conscience, freedom from subservience to other Government authorities, is necessary to the enterprise.

Williams v. United States, 535 U.S. 911, 921, 122 S.Ct. 1221, 1227, 152 L.Ed.2d 153 (2002) (Breyer, J., dissenting, with whom Scalia and Kennedy, JJ., join) (citation omitted). As Justice Breyer explains, judges, who are often called upon to answer our society's thorniest legal questions where a constitution demands it, should not be moved by potential adverse public opinion, whichever way it might cut. Id. at 919, 122 S.Ct. at 1226. Whenever a court considers a matter where public sentiment is strong and emotions are high, it risks public alienation. Id. However, the Wyoming public has understood the need and importance of judges deciding important constitutional issues without regard to such considerations. In the final analysis, this Court has the non-transferable responsibility and the unavoidable obligation to decide. Id.

The Court's Past Decisions

[? 10] "We presume the legislature enacts statutes with full knowledge of the existing condition of the law and with reference to it." Almada v. State, 994 P.2d 299, 306 (Wyo.1999).

[? 11] In Parsons v. Jow, 480 P.2d 396 (Wyo.1971), this Court affirmed the district court's order which dismissed the tort claim of Parsons, an underage passenger in an automobile operated by McCall, also underage, asserted against Jow, the owner of a bar, whose employee had sold intoxicating liquor to the underage McCall. McCall had consumed the liquor, become intoxicated, and driven his automobile into a school building, causing permanent injuries to Parsons. Affirming the district court's order that Parsons' complaint against Jow had failed to state a legally cognizable tort claim upon which relief could be granted under Wyoming tort law, this Court recognized and applied the common law rule that no cause of action existed "against a vendor of liquor in favor of one injured by a vendee who becomes intoxicated?€”this for the reason that the proximate cause of the injury was deemed to be the patron's consumption of liquor and not its sale." Id. at 397. Parsons had apparently argued that a Wyoming statute, then ? 12-33, W.S.1957, 1969 Cum. Supp., made unlawful the sale of liquor to...

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