Reeves v. Gentile

Decision Date17 May 1991
Docket NumberNo. 880492,880492
PartiesSidney REEVES, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Mary GENTILE, dba Lighthouse Lounge, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Randall W. Richards, Darrell G. Renstrom, Ogden, for defendant and appellant.

Brian R. Florence, Ogden, for plaintiff and appellee.

HALL, Chief Justice:

Defendant Mary Gentile, dba Lighthouse Lounge, appeals from a jury verdict against her in the Second Judicial District Court, Weber County. The jury found that defendant was liable pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 32A-14-1 (1986) ("the Dramshop Act") for injuries sustained by plaintiff when struck by a car driven by a patron of defendant's bar.

On September 22, 1987, Jeff Edwards began a drinking spree at Shear Brothers Tavern ("Shear Brothers") in Ogden, Utah, sometime between 1 and 2 p.m. While there, he and a friend consumed approximately two pitchers of beer.

After leaving Shear Brothers, Edwards proceeded to a fast food restaurant to get something to eat. Shortly thereafter, he went to the place of employment of Bret A. Trease and left a message for Trease to meet him at The Keg Lounge ("The Keg").

At approximately 3:40 p.m., Trease met Edwards at The Keg, where they consumed beer. Thereafter, Edwards followed Trease to a day-care center, where Trease left his car for his wife to use. Trease then entered Edwards' car, and they returned to The Keg. Trease testified at trial that he consumed between five and eight twelve-ounce cans during the second visit to The Keg. Edwards testified that after leaving The Keg at approximately 6:30 p.m., he did not remember anything else because of the quantity of beer he had consumed.

After leaving The Keg, Trease and Edwards decided to drive to Lighthouse Lounge ("the Lighthouse"). While en route to the Lighthouse, they met Mike Postel and Kerwin Ficklin, who agreed to meet them at the bar. Once at the Lighthouse, it is undisputed that Trease and Edwards were obviously under the influence of alcohol. Defendant claims that the bar refused to sell or serve any liquor to Trease and Edwards because of their condition and that the bartender was given explicit instructions to that effect. In addition, witnesses testified that at no time did they see the bartender serve or offer liquor to either Trease or Edwards.

The evidence is in dispute as to what happened at this point. The facts are vague, but apparently Ficklin ordered a pitcher of beer. Witnesses testified that all four men split the pitcher of beer and, at some point during the next three hours, beer glasses may have been furnished to the party of four, according to some witnesses, or taken from the bar without permission, according to others. In addition, Ficklin testified that the four consumed a second pitcher that was served by the bartender; however, it is unclear who ordered the beer. Ficklin further testified that when he and Postel left the Lighthouse, Trease and Edwards were still seated with beers in front of them. Witnesses testified that Trease and Edwards remained in the bar for about twenty minutes after Ficklin and Postel left.

Trease and Edwards left the Lighthouse at about 9:30 p.m. and drove to Peg's Lew Monico Tavern ("Peg's"). At Peg's, they consumed approximately five beers each and left at 10:30 p.m. Trease drove Edwards' mother's car because Edwards was apparently in worse condition.

At approximately 11 p.m., Trease struck two joggers, Sidney E. Reeves and Marcella Montgomery, while traveling east on 2550 North in North Ogden. Ms. Montgomery was killed, and plaintiff Sidney Reeves was seriously injured. Following the incident, blood alcohol tests disclosed that Trease had a blood alcohol level of .18 and Edwards had a blood alcohol level of .30. In addition, some evidence was presented at trial that Reeves and Montgomery were jogging on the wrong side of the road, that they did not have illuminating clothes or accessories, and that they may have been jogging either on the edge of the paved roadway or on the dirt shoulder.

On January 6, 1988, Reeves filed this action against Trease, Edwards, the Lighthouse, Peg's, and others. Trial was held October 18-21, 1988, and resulted in a jury verdict for $75,000 against each of the taverns that were still involved in the trial, for a total of $225,000. On October 31, 1988, a hearing was held pursuant to defendant's motion for remittitur to limit the total liability of the taverns to $100,000 pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 32A-14-1 (1986). The trial court denied the motion and allowed the $75,000 award against each defendant to stand.

Defendant presents four issues on appeal:

(1) whether there was sufficient evidence presented at trial for the jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant was liable under the Dramshop Act; (2) whether the Dramshop Act allows causes of action against each tavern owner individually or all tavern owners combined; (3) whether the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on contributory and comparative negligence; and (4) whether it was prejudicial for the trial court to permit plaintiff to introduce evidence of insurance settlements with Reeves on behalf of Trease and Edwards.


The first issue raised by defendant is that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that she was liable under the Dramshop Act. In order to find defendant liable, the jury was required to find the requisite elements of the cause of action pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 32A-14-1(1) (Supp.1986) (current version at Utah Code Ann. § 32A-14-101 (Supp.1990), which states:

(1) Any person who directly gives, sells, or otherwise provides liquor, or at a location allowing consumption on the premises, any alcoholic beverage, to a person;

(a) who is under the age of 21 years or

(b) who is apparently under the influence of intoxicating alcoholic beverages or products or drugs or

(c) [who] the person furnishing the alcoholic beverage knew or should have known from the circumstances was under the influence of intoxicating alcoholic beverages or products or drugs or

(d) who is a known interdicted person, and by those actions causes the intoxication of that person, is liable for injuries in person, property, or means of support to any third person, or to the spouse, child, or parent of that third person, resulting from the intoxication. An employer is liable for the action of its employees in violation of this chapter.

Defendant claims that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that she "directly" gave, sold, or otherwise provided liquor to Trease and Edwards. Plaintiff, however, presented evidence that someone other than Ficklin or Postel ordered at least one of the pitchers of beer at the Lighthouse and that defendant may have provided beer glasses to Trease and Edwards.

The function of a jury is to act as reasonable persons in discerning the true state of the facts where factual disputes exist, to discern the credibility of witnesses, and to apply the law to the facts as instructed by the trial court in reaching a verdict. Jury verdicts are upheld

[i]f there is any substantial competent evidence upon which a jury acting fairly and reasonably could make the finding.... But if the finding is so plainly unreasonable as to convince the court that no jury acting fairly and reasonably could make the finding, it cannot be said to be supported by substantial evidence. 1

Although the evidence was in dispute as to who actually purchased the beer, it was undisputed that Trease and Edwards continued to consume beer purchased on the premises. Hence, it was not unreasonable for the jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that Lighthouse provided beer to Trease and Edwards while they were in an intoxicated state.


Defendant's second claim is that the trial court erred in granting an excessive judgment under the Dramshop Act. The interpretation of a statute is a question of law, and as such, when reviewing a trial court's statutory interpretation, we give no deference but review the interpretation for correctness. 2

The Dramshop Act, Utah Code Ann. § 32A-14-1 (Supp.1986), provides:

(2) A person who suffers an injury under Subsection (1) has a cause of action against the person who provided the liquor or other alcoholic beverage in violation of Subsection (1).


(4) The total amount of damages that may be awarded to any person pursuant to a cause of action under this chapter which arises after the effective date of this subsection is limited to $100,000 and the aggregate amount which may be awarded to all persons injured as a result of one occurrence is limited to $300,000.

The primary rule of statutory interpretation is to give effect to the intent of the legislature in light of the purpose the statute was meant to achieve. 3 The purpose of the Dramshop Act is to deter "any person" from causing the intoxication of another or from serving liquor to anyone whom the person knew or should have known to be intoxicated.

The language of the statute clearly indicates that the legislature intended a cause of action to be available against each person or entity which provided liquor to an intoxicated person or caused that person to become intoxicated. 4 In the instant case, Reeves had a cause of action against each of the establishments that served Trease and Edwards in their intoxicated condition. Therefore, the jury could award up to $100,000 liability against each of the tavern owners. Hence, the trial court did not err in letting the jury verdict stand against each of the tavern owners.


Defendant's third claim is that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury with regard to contributory or comparative negligence. Defendant actually presents two issues regarding comparative negligence: first, the comparative negligence of the tavern owners and Trease and Edwards, and second, the...

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