TRUCKEE, Calif. - If a supermarket, say, a Safeway near Sonoma State, sells beer to a minor who presents a fake ID, and that minor then gives the beer to his buddy, also a minor, who while drinking and driving recklessly kills someone, are the two boys legally responsible? Yes. Is Safeway?
Safeway Sells Beer
Dylan Morse and Ryne Spitzer, Sonoma State students, spent the evening drinking at a fraternity party. After the party was broken up by the police, they went to Safeway to buy more beer.
Together they selected the beer and both stood at the checkout counter while an experienced store clerk checked Spitzer's ID. It included a photo and hologram and appeared legitimate.
In fact, the license was forged. It also was fairly clear they were pretty lit up from the alcohol. Spitzer, who presented the fake ID, carried the beer out to the car. They began drinking in the car and Morse the driver crashed into another vehicle and killed a young man.
The deceased's family sued Morse, Spitzer and Safeway, claiming Safeway essentially sold the beer to Morse.
No Liability for Serving Alcohol
In California, with one exception, there is no civil liability for anyone who sells, gives away or causes to sell or give away alcoholic beverages - for injuries to third persons caused by the consumer of the alcohol. No matter how much booze is furnished.
This applies to bars and retail stores. The immunity applies even if alcohol is sold to someone who is "obviously intoxicated."
Obviously Intoxicated Minor
The one exception is that anyone who sells, gives away or causes to sell or give away alcohol to an "obviously intoxicated minor" is responsible - not only for the injuries caused by the minor but for injuries caused to the minor.
Beer for Your Buddy
The issue in the Rohnert Park Safeway case was whether Safeway engaged in selling, furnishing, giving, or causing to be sold, furnished or given away ... alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor, in this case, the driver Dylan Morse. The trial court ruled for Safeway and the case made it to the Court of Appeal.
The decedent's family argued that Safeway furnished or caused to be furnished or gave alcohol to Morse indirectly through Spitzer. They argued it was clear that Spitzer was going to share the beer with Morse so Safeway essentially caused the beer to be furnished to Morse.
The Court of Appeal concluded Safeway's clerk sold the beer to Spitzer and Spitzer was not the driver who negligently caused the death. Safeway neither sold nor furnished alcohol to Morse the driver. Safeway is exonerated. The case did not discuss Safeway's selling to a minor with a fake ID.
Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of this incident, my nephew who recently graduated from Sonoma State, said that Rohnert Park's Safeway checks the IDs of all young people who come to the counter with someone seeking to buy alcohol, even if an adult presents an ID - presumably to avoid just this type of tragic situation.
Social Host Liquor Liability
Remember, as of January 1, 2011, the law changed to increase the potential liability of a social host who serves alcohol at their home - to not only when they sell or cause to be sold any alcoholic beverage to an obviously intoxicated minor, but also when a parent, guardian, or other adult knowingly furnishes alcohol at his/her residence to a person under 21, who then goes out and injures or kills someone. Liability for social hosts is the norm, not the exception.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. He was the Governor's appointee to the California Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. Jim's practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, foreclosures, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm's website www.portersimon.com.