Trial court awarded collectively $15 million in both compensatory and punitive damages to four plaintiffs in this consolidated case. Claims were filed after a horrific drunk driving accident before which the driver, then 19, purchased beer from a local convenience store, despite not having yet reached the legal age of 21. In her vehicle were three minors, who had also been drinking. The driver lost control of the vehicle, veered off the road and crashed into a tree, ejecting all passengers. A 13-year-old passenger was killed and the three others in the car were seriously injured.
Lawsuits were filed by the two other passengers, the mother of the decedent and the mother of the driver – all against the company that owned the convenience store. Those cases were later consolidated and tried as one in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County.
The store reportedly had a reputation for selling alcohol to those underage. Alabama is one of many states that have so-called “Dram Shop Laws” on the books that allow criminal and civil action against establishments that sell alcohol to minors and, in some cases, those who sell to clearly intoxicated patrons. In cases where damage is caused by the actions of those intoxicated persons, injured parties can seek redress against the establishment for illegal sales of alcohol.
Ala. Code 6-5-71 is the state’s Dram Shop Law. State law also allows liability to be found in cases where a person unlawfully sells, furnishes or gives a controlled substance to a minor resulting in injury or damage to a third party, so long as it can be showed that providing the controlled substance was the proximate cause of injury or damage.
Here, jurors at the trial court level sided in favor of plaintiffs, and chose to award punitive damages to each of the four plaintiffs. In a separate non-jury trial, the court ruled plaintiffs should be allowed to “pierce the corporate veil” and hold the sole proprietor of that business personally liable to pay these damages. Trial court upheld that decision upon review, and an appeal was made to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Defendants argued they were denied a fair trial for issues that occurred during voir dire, and were entitled to a new trial because punitive awards were based on prejudice and bias, and also that the corporate structure of the company was wrongly disregarded.
The state supreme court accepted review of the case, and further requested briefing on additional issues that related specifically to punitive damage awards. Punitive damages in personal injury lawsuits are intended to punish a defendant, whereas compensatory damages are intended to make whole the plaintiff.
Those issues questioned whether comparative fault by plaintiff should impact whether and in what amount punitive damages could be awarded, whether punitive damages should be assessed for individual plaintiffs or rather should be decided as one issue and then divided among plaintiffs, and whether, when examining punitive awards alleged to be excessive, the court should consider the total amount or only that which is awarded to individual plaintiffs.
Both sides weighed in, and the Alabama Defense Lawyers’ Association even filed an amicus brief in the case. The court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s verdict without further explanation of that opinion.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.
Alabama Supreme Court Upholds $15M Verdict in Dram Shop Act Lawsuit, Nov. 24, 2015, Insurance Journal
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