C-Stores Liable After Alcohol Sales

Ga. Supreme Court ruling exposes retailers to "almost-certain economic ruin," dissenter says

ATLANTA -- The Georgia Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and found that a convenience store can be held liable for a fatal highway accident that took place after a driver purchased a 12-pack of beer, said the Associated Press.

The court ruled 6 to 1 Tuesday that Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia LLC can be held liable for selling beer to a man named Billy Grundell, who was noticeably intoxicated when he made the purchase. His vehicle later struck a van, killing him and five other people.

The families of those injured sued, but the trial court and Georgia [image-nocss] Court of Appeals awarded summary judgment to the store on grounds the beer was not sold for consumption on premises.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

Ruling against the c-store were Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justices Hugh Thompson (pictured), George Carley, P. Harris Hines, Howard Melton and David Nahmias.

For the majority, Thompson wrote: "Because [the dram shop act] uses the terms 'sells, furnishes or serves' alcohol in the disjunctive, it is clear that it was intended to encompass the sale of an alcoholic beverage at places other than the proverbial dram shop.... The upshot of the Court of Appeals' decision is that the dram shop act is to be applied only where an alcoholic beverage is served or poured on premises to an adult. That would mean that a convenience store cannot be held liable for selling closed or packaged alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated adult under any set of circumstances. We cannot accept this interpretation of the statute."

Dissenting, Justice Robert Benham wrote: "During the years that the dram shop law has been in existence, it has never been applied to grocery stores, convenience stores or mom and pop roadside stores. In fact, the General Assembly has declared that "the consumption of alcoholic beverages" is the behavior being regulated by the act rather than the sale of such beverages.... The herculean step the majority opinion takes today by including such stores in the sweep of the dram shop act is contrary to the history of the act's application and experience."

"Establishments such as grocery and convenience stores are different in kind from restaurants, bars and clubs where alcohol is consumed openly on the premises and where employees interact numerous times with their customers. In grocery and convenience stores, store clerks have very little contact with the customers standing in line waiting to make their purchases. Often the brief interaction between grocery and convenience store clerks and their customers is limited to nothing more than determining the amount and form of payment.... In these situations, store clerks are not in a position to judge the sobriety of their customers, much less to determine whether their customers will be driving soon."

"The negative impact of the majority's opinion will be far-reaching, in particular exposing small businesses to indeterminate liability and almost-certain economic ruin. Should we require general store clerks, as opposed to licensed bartenders, to judge sobriety or to investigate which customers arrived at the store by driving a vehicle, rather than as a passenger or pedestrian? Will stores now be required to keep surveillance recordings for the duration of the statute of limitations period on the chance that one of its customers is involved in an accident, perhaps long after he or she last set foot in the store? The steps necessary to ensure against this liability for grocery and convenience stores are unworkable at best."

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