Olsen v. Copeland, 77-626

Decision Date29 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 77-626,77-626
Citation90 Wis.2d 483,280 N.W.2d 178
PartiesKarl G. OLSEN, Todd Olsen, a minor, Thomas Olsen, a minor, Thaddeus Olsen, a minor, Theresa Olsen, a minor, and Tania Olsen, a minor, by their guardian Ad litem Richard E. Reilly, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. John Q. COPELAND, Individually and d/b/a Parkland Tap, Defendant-Appellant, John C. Jensen, Defendant.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

Cape, Gempeler & Jones, Milwaukee, and Carl F. Schetter, Milwaukee (argued and of counsel), for defendant-appellant.

Franklyn M. Gimbel, Linda S. Vanden-Heuvel (argued), and Gimbel, Gimbel & Reilly, Milwaukee, on brief, for plaintiffs-respondents.

Dale P. Gerdes, Milwaukee, for amicus curiae Tavern League of Wisconsin.

HANSEN, Justice.

The question presented by the parties on this appeal is whether a third party injured by an intoxicated person has a common-law cause of action against a tavernkeeper for the negligent sale of intoxicating beverages to a patron the tavernkeeper knew or should have known was intoxicated and who the tavernkeeper knew or should have known would be driving.

However, in its decision the trial court recognized that the public policy decision involved was broader than the liability of a licensed tavern operator and in so doing stated:

". . . the time has come to reject and lay to rest those social considerations which for many years past have exculpated negligent dispensers of liquor, whether they be commercial or social, . . ."

This court is again being asked to abrogate the common-law rule that dispensers of intoxicating beverages have no liability to third parties injured by the intoxicated patron. In 1970, this court refused to change the rule of nonliability. Garcia v. Hargrove, 46 Wis.2d 724, 176 N.W.2d 566 (1970). This decision was reaffirmed in Garcia v. Hargrove, 52 Wis.2d 289, 190 N.W.2d 181 (1971). The basis of the common-law rule is the theory that the proximate cause of the injury is the act of the purchaser in drinking the liquor, and not the act of the vendor in selling it. In Garcia, the majority based its retention of the common-law rule of nonliability on considerations of public policy. The court did not rely on the rationale that the drinking and not the sale was the proximate cause of the injury or that resolution of the issue had been preempted by the legislature. The court stated:

"Therefore, in the final analysis, the outcome of this case is not determined by application of 'proximate cause' or whether the legislature has or has not acted. The controlling consideration is one of public policy, and it is the determination of this court that reasons of public policy dictate liability not be extended as proposed by plaintiff." Garcia v. Hargrove, supra, 46 Wis.2d at 732, 733, 176 N.W.2d at 570.

The trial court here is creating a cause of action unknown at common law by rejecting public policy considerations vitally important to such a decision. When the ramifications of this action are considered grave questions arise regarding its wisdom.

Admittedly the specific factual context presented in this case lends itself to a superficial application of the principles of negligence. Certainly in view of the current practice of defining proximate cause by using the substantial factor test, lack of proximate cause as a basis for the common-law rule has been seriously eroded and can no longer be relied upon as a bar to the action. However, the considerations that were formerly incorporated into the concept of proximate cause remain in the law as public policy factors imposed by the court to cut off liability. Hass v. Chicago & North Western Ry. Co., 48 Wis.2d 321, 326, 179 N.W.2d 885 (1970). The label may have changed but the reason for the common-law rule remains. The responsibility for the act remains with the person whose voluntary intoxication resulted in the injury. The fact that today there may be more intoxicated persons behind the wheels of more autos is not a sufficient reason to change the rule. In those states with dram shop acts and those recognizing a common-law cause of action liability is not limited to the injuries negligently caused by intoxicated drivers. The action can also cover intentional assaults by intoxicated persons and may even cover injuries inflicted by the drinker on himself. Vance v. United States, 355 F.Supp. 756 (D.Alaska 1973); Hull v. Rund, 150 Colo. 425, 374 Pac.2d 351 (1962); Ramsey v. Anctil, 106 N.H. 375, 211 A.2d 900 (1965); Schelin v. Goldberg, 188 Pa.Super. 341, 146 A.2d 648 (1958). The problems posed by the presence of a seriously intoxicated person in a public place are no different now then they were in the past. The only difference is in numbers now there are more people and perhaps more people driving in an intoxicated condition.

A court should alter a common-law rule where the reason for the rule no longer exists. Shier v. Freedman, 58 Wis.2d 269, 206 N.W.2d 166, 208 N.W.2d 328 (1973); Dippel v. Sciano, 37 Wis.2d 443, 155 N.W.2d 55 (1967); Moran v. Quality Aluminum Casting Co., 34 Wis.2d 542, 150 N.W.2d 137 (1967); Widell v. Holy Trinity Catholic Church, 19 Wis.2d 648, 121 N.W.2d 649 (1963); Holytz v. Milwaukee, 17 Wis.2d 26, 115 N.W.2d 618 (1962); Kojis v. Doctors Hospital, 12 Wis.2d 367, 107 N.W.2d 131 (1961). The public policy factors which militated against this cause of action in the past are as persuasive today.

Six policy reasons are recognized by this court for cutting off liability:

". . . (1) The injury is too remote from the negligence; or (2) the injury is too wholly out of proportion to the culpability of the negligent tort-feasor; or (3) in retrospect it appears too highly extraordinary that the negligence should have brought about the harm; or (4) because allowance of recovery would place too unreasonable a burden on the negligent tort-feasor; or (5) because allowance of recovery would be too likely to open the way for fraudulent claims; or (6) allowance of recovery would enter a field that has no sensible or just stopping point. . . ." Coffey v. Milwaukee, 74 Wis.2d 526, 541, 247 N.W.2d 132, 140 (1976).

The possibility that an accident will occur if an intoxicated person continues to drink may be foreseeable, but the act of serving the liquor is nonetheless a remote cause of any resulting harm. As we said in Garcia v. Hargrove, 46 Wis.2d 724, 736, 176 N.W.2d 566, 572 (1970):

". . . Human beings, drunk or sober, are responsible for their own torts. Allowing plaintiff's cause of action against the defendant would only erode that responsibility . . . ."

The cause of an auto accident involving an intoxicated driver is the driver's inability to control his auto and this inability is the direct result of his voluntarily becoming intoxicated. Assigning the blame to the one who provided that means for that intoxication carries the chain a link too far.

The argument that the intoxicated driver is not absolved of liability but merely shares it with the dispenser is difficult to comprehend. Given a situation in which the voluntarily intoxicated driver is solely responsible for the accident, the task of assigning some percent of the negligence to the dispenser appears to be impossible. A mere five percent causal negligence assessed to the dispenser shifts part of the burden from the driver and says that to the extent of that five percent he is not responsible. Formulating a cause instruction to explain this situation to a jury could prove impossible. The dispenser and the driver are not joint tort-feasors. Their negligence does not combine to produce the result. Nonetheless, one must assume that if this action were recognized the driver would be entitled to recover contribution from the dispenser. If the practice of some states is followed the driver would be able to recover for his own injuries. Any shifting of the blame from the shoulders of the intoxicated driver is contrary to sound public policy. Further, because this action would be resorted to most often where the intoxicated driver is financially irresponsible, in many cases the dispenser would bear the whole of the judgment. In such a situation the dispenser who fails to notice that the drink his patron is being served will be the "one too many" for that driver will certainly be bearing a burden wholly out of proportion to his culpability.

Yet another problem with this created cause of action provides ample reason to adhere to our former position on this issue. It is one thing to think in terms of considering the application of such a law to the individually licensed country tavern. However, an entirely different situation is presented when considering its application to licensed hotels in a metropolitan center. On a given occasion such a licensee accommodates several hundred people at perhaps seven or eight special events, each with special arrangements for dispensing beverages and a corresponding increase in the number of bartenders and waitresses and waiters.

As the trial court recognizes, there can be no realistic, sensible common-law distinction when describing one who gives, sells or serves intoxicating beverages to one who is visibly intoxicated. If it is negligent when done by a licensed tavernkeeper, it is negligent when done by a bartender, a waiter or waitress, a social host or fellow-guest or companion. Such liability must be expanded to include others participating in serving or giving or supplying a beverage to the person with "one too many drinks." It must necessarily include the social situation as well as the commercial. We know of no rule of law which would support the proposition that such a cause of action can be created only against licensed tavernkeepers while others participating in or performing the identical act under different situations can be excluded. Some such situations that come to mind are county fairs, American Legion Fourth of July picnics, and wedding receptions whether held...

To continue reading

Request your trial
41 cases
  • Sorensen by Kerscher v. Jarvis
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • June 28, 1984
    ... ... patron who later drove a vehicle and caused harm--presented itself to this court in Olsen v. Copeland, 90 Wis.2d 483, 280 N.W.2d 178 (1979) ...         The Olsen majority ... ...
  • Kelly v. Gwinnell
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • June 27, 1984
    ... ...         In Olsen v. Copeland, 90 Wis.2d 483, 491, 280 N.W.2d 178, 181 (1979), the Supreme Court of Wisconsin said: ... ...
  • Otis Engineering Corp. v. Clark
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • November 30, 1983
    ... ... Steinbach, 98 Wash.2d 434, 656 P.2d 1030 (1982) (en banc); and Olsen v. Copeland, 90 Wis.2d 483, 280 N.W.2d 178 (1979) ...         A short discussion of the ... ...
  • Alegria v. Payonk
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • September 26, 1980
    ... ... City of Preston, 97 Idaho 295, 543 P.2d 848 (1975); Fairchild v. Olsen, 96 Idaho 338, 528 P.2d 900 (1974). We agree ...         The elements of common law ... 367, 563 P.2d 1160 (N.M.1977); Ceriffin v. Sebek, 245 N.W.2d 481 (S.D.1976); Olsen v. Copeland, 90 Wis.2d 483, 280 N.W.2d 178 (1979) ...         The recent case of Holmes v. Circo, ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT