A New Mexico news story has been getting a lot of press of late. A man convicted in 2010 of vehicular homicide for a DWI fatality has now filed suit against the bars and restaurants that served him. The man has also filed suit against his drinking buddy on the night of the fatal DWI accident.
As evidenced by all the press the story is getting, this obviously does not sit well with the public and will likely lead to a chorus of protests. Cases like this are easy fodder for tort reform advocates who argue that there is rampant frivolous lawsuit abuse. However, it is a little early to draw any such conclusions from the filing of this case.
In fact, there are a number of precedents set by both the New Mexico civil and criminal courts that lend some credence to the suit. Let's start with the suit against the buddy. Then we can move on to the claims against the bars and restaurants that served the man.
Passenger Criminal Liability for DWI Accidents
It was established in the 2009 New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Marquez that a passenger could be charged with vehicular homicide. That case was pretty remarkable on the facts. The two friends had gone on quite a bender being cut off at several bars whereupon they took their show to the roads purchasing alcohol at several retail outlets along the way. Tragically, in the end, 2 people were killed and 5 injured in a devastating DWI auto accident. With this precedent in place, why would there not be civil liability as well? After all, the standard for civil liability is much less stringent than for a criminal conviction.
Certainly, the person killed would have a claim potentially against those that served the man as well as his buddy. It is not a stretch to get to civil liability for the consequences to the driver no matter how repugnant this may on a gut level. The facts remain to be seen about the buddy's role in the accident and the drinking that led up to it. Once this is heard, and it should be heard, it may well be that the drinking buddy bears responsibility to both the innocent victims and his drunk driving friend.
Dram Shop Liability for the Bars & Restaurants
Civil liability for a drinking buddy to a DWI friend has as far as I can tell yet to go before the higher courts of New Mexico. The liability for the bars and restaurants to the DWI driver/patron has been addressed by the New Mexico Supreme Court in the 2011 case of Mendoza v. Tamaya.
That case involved a suit by estates of two patrons of a resort who were killed in a DWI accident following a wedding reception. The Court in that case clearly established that the estates of the deceased patrons, including the driver, could sue for negligent over-service of alcohol. Therefore, it is clear that the DWI offender could sue for his own physical injuries and wrongful death under a dram shop patron claim.
If that is the case, why should the same patron be prevented from filing suit for other damages for that same negligent over-service of alcohol, namely 42 years in prison in the case at hand? The fact is that there is appears to be no good legal basis for that position.
Liability is Possible Though Perhaps Not in This Particular Case
The facts in State v. Marquez and Mendoza v. Tamaya both involved exceptional facts. Perhaps, the facts of the most recently publicized case will not meet those same standards. Perhaps this is not the case that will establish liability for the DWI driver's own damages under the patron dram shop claim or a DWI buddy claim. But it does not take a great deal of imagination to envision a situation where such liability on both counts would be perfectly in order.
In light of the countless tragic DWI accidents, the outcome of this case could prove to be one more useful tool for fighting DWI in New Mexico. This is one possibility that does not seem to have been addressed yet by the press.