Wilson v. Steinbach

Decision Date29 December 1982
Docket NumberNo. 48565-8,48565-8
Citation656 P.2d 1030,98 Wn.2d 434
PartiesBruce WILSON and Carolyn Wilson, husband and wife; and Bruce Wilson, a Personal Representative of the Estate of Shelly L. Wilson, Petitioners, v. Glen L. STEINBACH and Jane Doe Steinbach, husband and wife, Respondents.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Timothy Carpenter, Bellingham, for petitioners.

Pinckney Rohrback, Seattle, for respondents.

Bryan Harnetiaux, Robert H. Whaley, Spokane, amicus curiae.


Petitioners Bruce and Carolyn Wilson, the surviving parents, and the estate of Shelly L. Wilson, brought this negligence action seeking damages from respondents Glen L. and Jane Doe Steinbach under the wrongful death and survival action statutes, RCW 4.20.010 and RCW 4.20.046. The trial court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the claims. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, Division One of the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's entry of summary judgment against petitioners. Wilson v. Steinbach, 31 Wash.App. 1012 (1982). We likewise affirm.

Shelly L. Wilson, age 19, was engaged to be married to respondents' son, Gerald Steinbach. On the evening of December 23, 1978, and in the early morning hours of December 24, 1978, Ms. Wilson attended a pre-Christmas party hosted by respondents. The beverages available at the party included two bottles of liquor provided by respondents, but guests were also encouraged to bring their own beverages if they so desired. While at the home of respondents, Shelly Wilson consumed an undetermined amount of alcoholic beverages. It is unknown whether Ms. Wilson consumed alcoholic beverages before attending respondents' party. Upon leaving the party with Gerald Steinbach as her passenger, Shelly Wilson lost control of her vehicle, struck a utility pole, and was killed. Counsel for petitioners alleged that, at the time of her death, Shelly Wilson's blood alcohol content was .19 percent. The evidence before the trial court on summary judgment, however, did not substantiate this allegation.

Petitioners commenced this lawsuit on November 9, 1979, alleging negligence on the part of respondents in permitting Shelly Wilson to become intoxicated and thereafter operate a motor vehicle. Respondents answered by denying liability and asserting, as an affirmative defense, Ms. Wilson's own negligence as the proximate cause of her death. Respondents then moved for summary judgment based on the pleadings and the affidavits of Glen L. Steinbach, Carol Steinbach, and Gerald Steinbach. Petitioners countered with an affidavit of their legal counsel which set forth no facts to contravene the factual assertions of the three Steinbach affidavits. The trial court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action. The Court of Appeals, Division One, affirmed. Wilson v. Steinbach, supra. We then granted petitioners' petition for review.

Since the trial court decided the liability issue in this case on an order of summary judgment, we must engage in the same inquiry as the trial court. Highline Sch. Dist. 401 v. Port of Seattle, 87 Wash.2d 6, 15, 548 P.2d 1085 (1976). A summary judgment motion under CR 56(c) can be granted only if the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and admissions on file demonstrate there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Barrie v. Hosts of America, Inc., 94 Wash.2d 640, 642, 618 P.2d 96 (1980). The court must consider all facts submitted and all reasonable inferences from the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Yakima Fruit & Cold Storage Co. v. Central Heating & Plumbing Co., 81 Wash.2d 528, 530, 503 P.2d 108 (1972); Barber v. Bankers Life & Cas. Co., 81 Wash.2d 140, 142, 500 P.2d 88 (1972). The motion should be granted only if, from all the evidence, reasonable persons could reach but one conclusion. Morris v. McNicol, 83 Wash.2d 491, 494-95, 519 P.2d 7 (1974).

Prior to 1955, Washington had a "Dramshop Act" (formerly RCW 4.24.100) which provided a civil cause of action to those injured by an intoxicated person against any person who, by providing intoxicating liquors, caused the intoxication of such person. 1 In 1955, the Legislature repealed that act. Laws of 1955, ch. 372, § 1, p. 1538. Since that time, the applicable law has been the following:

It is generally held that there can be no cause of action against one furnishing liquor in favor of those injured by the intoxication of the person so furnished, even though the liquor was sold or given to one in violation of a law other than under a civil damage act, so long as the person to whom the liquor was sold or given was not in such a state of helplessness or debauchery as to be deprived of his will power or responsibility for his behavior.

Halvorson v. Birchfield Boiler, Inc., 76 Wash.2d 759, 762, 458 P.2d 897 (1969), quoting with approval from 30 Am.Jur. Intoxicating Liquors § 521 (1958). Accord, Hulse v. Driver, 11 Wash.App. 509, 512-14, 524 P.2d 255 (1974). In Halvorson, we recognized and adopted the general common law rule of nonliability for furnishing intoxicants to an able-bodied person, while simultaneously recognizing the exceptions to the rule for obviously intoxicated persons, persons in a state of helplessness, or persons in a special relationship to the furnisher of intoxicants. Halvorson, 76 Wash.2d at 762-63, 458 P.2d 897.

In the instant case, the trial court considered the pleadings and affidavits of Glen L. Steinbach, Carol Steinbach, and Gerald Steinbach in determining the summary judgment motion. A careful review of these documents indicates petitioners have failed to establish that Shelly Wilson was in an obviously intoxicated or helpless condition at respondents' home that night. The uncontroverted affidavits of each of the Steinbachs indicates that none of them had any indication Shelly Wilson was intoxicated and each believed she acted in a "responsible and ladylike" manner. Clerk's Papers, at 8.

The trial court also considered the opposing affidavit of Timothy W. Carpenter, attorney for petitioners. As we noted in Meadows v. Grant's Auto Brokers, Inc., 71 Wash.2d 874, 880, 431 P.2d 216 (1967), an attorney's affidavit is entitled to the same consideration as any other affidavit based upon personal knowledge if the affidavit is based upon the attorney's own knowledge of the facts set forth therein. Here, however, the attorney's affidavit sets out no facts based on his personal knowledge of the case. Instead, the affidavit contains legal and factual arguments used to question the credibility of each of the Steinbach affiants. There is nothing in Mr. Carpenter's affidavit to contravene the factual assertions of the Steinbachs and thus it cannot place into issue the material fact of whether Shelly Wilson appeared to be extremely intoxicated. The settled rule in this state as to actions based on the Halvorson line of cases is that a person's sobriety must be judged by the way she appeared to those around her, not by what a blood alcohol test may subsequently reveal. Barrie v. Hosts of America, Inc., supra 94 Wash.2d at 643 n. 1, 618 P.2d 96; Shelby v. Keck, 85 Wash.2d 911, 915, 541 P.2d 365 (1975). The affidavits clearly state the Steinbachs' belief that Ms. Wilson manifested no signs of intoxication on the night in question and appeared sober and "ladylike" at the party. This is supported by the fact that respondents had no objections to their son being a passenger in Ms. Wilson's car. Under the Halvorson rule, the trial court's dismissal of petitioners' claims by summary judgment was proper.

Petitioners attempt to avoid this result by arguing that respondents had a greater duty toward Ms. Wilson as a guest in their home than the defendant in Halvorson had to the injured third party. In other words, petitioners seek a rule which would require differing duties and render different results depending on the identity of the victim. We find this argument wholly unpersuasive. Recently, in the context of the family or household exclusion clause in automobile insurance policies, we rejected just such an attempt to justify different results based on the identity of the injured victims as violative of this state's public policy. See Mutual of Enumclaw Ins. Co. v. Wiscomb, 97 Wash.2d 203, 209, 643 P.2d 441 (1982). Our decision in Wiscomb was premised partially on the realization that exclusions based on the identity of the injured party permit such distinctions to divert attention from the real issue of the conduct of the driver--the party who is or may be negligent. Wiscomb, at 209, 643 P.2d 441. We discern no better reason under these circumstances to reach a different result based on the identity of the injured party, whether it be the guest herself or a third party injured by the guest. The relevant inquiry here is whether the standard of care enunciated in Halvorson was observed or breached by respondents. Without a showing that Ms. Wilson appeared obviously intoxicated, helpless, or was in some special relationship with respondents, we find no basis for a cause of action under Halvorson.

Next, petitioners and amici on behalf of Washington State Trial Lawyers Association contend petitioners should be permitted to avoid the Halvorson rule by establishing that respondents were negligent per se. See Callan v. O'Neil, 20 Wash.App. 32, 39-40, 578 P.2d 890 (1978). Petitioners premise this theory on the standard of conduct required by RCW 26.28.080(4) and RCW 66.44.270, both of which prohibit the furnishing or selling of intoxicating liquors to persons under 21 years of age. But see RCW 66.44.270 (unlawful for person under 21 years of age to acquire, possess, or consume liquor) and RCW 66.44.290 (unlawful for person under 21 years of age to purchase or attempt to purchase liquor).

Petitioners did not raise the theory of negligence per se...

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