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Who's To Blame For Drunk Driving?

When a drunk driver causes a car accident, most people place the blame squarely on that driver. However, what if the driver got drunk at a bar, and was visibly intoxicated when the bartender allowed him to get in his vehicle and drive away? Should the driver be allowed to recover from the bar?

This issue will soon be debated by the New Jersey Supreme Court as it attempts to resolve a major discrepancy in state law. A 1997 amendment to New Jersey's automobile insurance law precludes drunk drivers for recovering monetary damages for injuries suffered in accidents related to drunk driving. However, a contradictory 1987 law which is designed to hold bars and similar establishments responsible for overserving alcohol effectively encourages such lawsuits by drunk drivers.

The appeal concerns Frederick Voss, a motorcyclist who suffered injuries in a November 2006 car accident. Voss had been drinking for several hours at Tiffany's Restaurant in Toms River when he left the bar on his motorcycle, ran a red light, and crashed into a car. Voss suffered permanent injuries after being propelled 100 feet in the air. In his lawsuit against Tiffany's, he alleges that he was negligently overserved alcohol.

Voss initially sued the driver of the car, but the court dismissed that claim on the basis that it was barred by the 1997 law. However, the court allowed Voss' suit against Tiffany's, who appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the appeal in consideration of the conflicting laws. No date has been set for appellate arguments.

According to AnnMarie McDonald of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, Voss should not be allowed to benefit from his mistake. "Drunk drivers shouldn't be reimbursed for poor choices, nor should law-abiding citizens have to pay for it through higher insurance premiums," she said.

However, according to Voss attorney William Wenzel, holding the bar responsible is a matter of public policy. "The liquor establishment has as much responsibility to stem the tide of drunken driving as the people who do the drunk driving," he said.

Source: Asbury Park Press, "Justices to take up issue of DUI", Kathleen Hopkins, 26 September 2010

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