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Alcohol Sale to Underage Drunk Driver Nets Convenience Store $716.5M Penalty

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A civil trial jury in Hillsboro County, Florida (FL) has ordered the owner of a convenience store that sold alcohol to a teen who later in the day caused a drunk driving accident that killed a 32-year-old man to pay the deceased victim's family $716.5 million. The wrongful death award is believed to be a record for Florida.

Whether the judgment sets a new standard for civil litigation, holding a negligent corporation accountable for providing hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to a mother and father who lost their son sends a strong and unmistakable message. In this instance, jurors obviously wanted to make it clear that no store or restaurant should be allowed to sell alcohol to underage drinkers. Testimony during the early May 2012 trial made it apparent that the defendant company and its owners were well known among area teenagers for not enforcing laws requiring people purchasing beer, wine and liquor to be 21.

The wrongful death award was made possible by Florida's so-called "dram shop law," which allows people harmed by the actions of intoxicated individuals to hold suppliers of alcohol liable. With some variations and restrictions, dram shop laws make party hosts, home owners, bars and stores responsible for refusing service to people they know, or should know, are already drunk or not old enough to buy and consume alcohol.

North Carolina (NC) is among 38 states that allow personal injury and wrongful death plaintiffs to hold vendors (i.e., stores, bars, restaurants) strictly liable for making potentially dangerous drunk drivers more dangerous. Proving that a clerk, bartender or waitperson recognized signs of inebriation can be difficult, however. Much simpler, and what happened in the Florida case, is showing that someone failed to check ID or sold alcohol even while knowing the purchaser was underage.

People who cause accidents while driving under the influence of alcohol inflict untold pain and suffering on the people they hit. Recognizing this, a majority of states attempt to keep drunks off the road by making suppliers of alcohol responsible for curbing intoxication. The outcome of the Florida wrongful death lawsuit that invoked the dram shop law indicates what can happen when a convenience store fails to live up to that responsibility.

EJL

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.