Overserved at Filling Station?

State high court says selling gas to drunk motorist could make owner responsible

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Selling gasoline to an intoxicated motorist could make store owners legally responsible for injuries suffered if the motorist causes a crash, the Tennessee state Supreme Court has ruled, reported The Knoxville News Sentinel.

The ruling comes in a Knoxville lawsuit that sought to extend the state's negligence laws, long applied to sellers of alcohol to intoxicated people, to those who provide them gasoline.

In the case, Gary L. West, et al. v. East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co., Gary L. West and Michell B. Richardson [image-nocss] suffered severe injuries in a July 2000 crash when their vehicle was struck head-on by drunk driver Brian Lee Tarver, 49, said the report. Tarver later pleaded guilty to charges including vehicular assault and second-offense driving under the influence.

Attorneys Gregory F. Coleman and Michael A. Myers later filed a lawsuit in Knox County Circuit Court alleging that Tarver's car never would have made it to its tragic collision with West and Richardson but for the $3 worth of gasoline he bought at an Exxon station just before the crash.

The attorneys also alleged that employees at the station, owned by East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co., knew Tarver was drunkso drunk that a cashier refused to sell him beer, the report added.

The question for the state's high court was whether Pioneer could be held liable for the crash. Could or should its employees have foreseen the risk of a crash and, if so, was there something they could have done to try to prevent it?

While the high court made clear that the store's employees were not required to take affirmative action to stop Tarver from driving, they still could have refused to sell him gasoline, the court ruled. "A safer alternative was readily available and easily feasiblesimply refusing to sell gasoline to an obviously intoxicated driver," the court ruled in an opinion delivered by Justice William M. Barker.

According to court records, the cashier was facing a long line of customers when Tarver "pushed his way to the front of the line and asked the clerk if she would 'go get [him] some beer'." He reeked of alcohol and staggered when he walked, court records stated. Believing Tarver was drunk, the cashier declined to sell him beer, according to court records.

"Tarver began cursing loudly, talking to [the cashier] in a threatening manner," Barker wrote in the opinion. "Tarver then managed to pull three crumpled one dollar bills out of his pocket and laid them on the counter," Barker wrote. "He told [the clerk], 'We need gas' and then turned to leave." Once at the gas pumps, Tarver was too drunk to figure out how to turn the device on, the opinion stated. Two off-duty employees then helped him turn on the pump, according to the opinion. They later watched as Tarver got behind the wheel and drove into the oncoming lane of traffic on Rutledge Pike, the opinion stated.

A University of Tennessee professor later determined that Tarver's vehicle would have run out of gas before encountering West and Richardson if he had not been able to buy more fuel, the report said.

Knox County Circuit Court Judge Harold Wimberly had dismissed the lawsuit by West and Richardson, ruling that state law did not allow a claim of negligence against Pioneer for injuries Tarver caused.

The case heads back to his court for trial, where a jury must decide if blame should be placed on Pioneer and its employees, said the report. The state Supreme Court ruling only allows the case to proceed. The justices did not rule on whether Pioneer was negligent.

"We're pleased," Coleman told the newspaper. "Now we can go forward with the trial itself."

To view court document, click here.

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