[author: Joseph Aguilar]
Michael Ruiz, et al. v. Safeway, Inc.
Court of Appeal, First District (October 12, 2012)
In California, when someone is injured by an intoxicated person, the proximate cause is the consumption of alcohol, not the person who sold the alcohol. This case addresses the single exception to that rule, embodied in Business and Professions Code section 25602.1, where a vendor sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor who later causes injury to third parties.
On February 14, 2009, Dylan Morse and Ryne Spitzer entered a Safeway grocery store before 2:00 a.m., shortly after leaving a fraternity party where both men were consuming alcohol. Both Morse and Spitzer entered the store, walked together to grab a 12-pack of beer, and both stood in line to purchase the beer. The check-out clerk asked for identification. Spitzer provided the clerk his driver’s license. It showed his age as over twenty-one, it contained a hologram, the photo matched Spitzer’s physical appearance, and the license was not expired. The clerk, who had twelve years of experience, proceeded with the transaction and sold the beer to Spitzer. Spitzer’s driver’s license was fraudulent. Both Spitzer and Morse were under the age of twenty-one. After the purchase, Morse drove the two men away. Spitzer handed Morse a can of beer, which Morse drank while driving. Soon thereafter, Morse allegedly caused a car accident that resulted in the death of the appellants’ son.
Appellants filed a complaint against Morse, Spitzer and Safeway for wrongful death. The single cause of action against Safeway was based upon Business and Professions Code section 25602.1, which states in pertinent part “a cause of action may be brought by or on behalf of any person who has suffered injury or death against any person . . . who sells, or causes to be sold, any alcoholic beverage, to any obviously intoxicated minor where the furnishing, sale or giving of that beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained by that person.” Safeway moved for summary judgment, arguing (1) it did not furnish or cause the beer to be furnished to Morse, and (2) that neither individual was “obviously intoxicated” when the purchase occurred. The trial court held that there were triable issues of fact as to whether Spitzer and Morse were “obviously intoxicated;” however, the court granted Safeway’s summary judgment motion because there was no triable issue of fact that it sold, furnished, gave, or caused to be sold alcohol to the driver of the car, Morse. Appellants appealed.
The Appellate Court reiterated the California rule that when a person is injured by an individual who is drunk, the proximate cause is deemed the consumption of alcohol by the consumer and not the person who sold the alcohol. At one point, the California Supreme Court attempted to circumvent this rule, but the Legislature specifically abrogated those decisions in Business and Professions Code Section 25602(c). The only exception was codified in Business and Professions Code Section 25602.1, where the vendor “sells, or causes to be sold” alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated minor where the furnishing, sale or giving of that beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death” of a third party. The court reasoned that the phrase “causes to be sold” requires an affirmative act by the vendor that “necessarily brings about the resultant action to which the statute is directed, i.e., the sale of alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor.” The court held that the nothing in the evidence demonstrated that the Safeway clerk performed an affirmative act related to the sale of alcohol to Morse, or any other act that “necessarily would have resulted in Spitzer furnishing or giving that beer to Morse.”
The court rejected the appellants’ arguments that a jury could reasonably infer that the Safeway clerk caused the beer to be furnished to Morse based on the fact that both Morse and Spitzer entered the store, grabbed the beer, and stood in line together while purchasing the beer. According to the court, the statute’s specific Legislative history dictated that this statute must be construed narrowly. Further, any reliance on what the vendor could infer from the situation was rejected by the Legislature in abrogating past case law and adopting the narrow exception in section 25602.1. Accordingly, the court affirmed the granting of Safeway’s motion for summary judgment.
This case firmly reinforces the no-liability rule for vendors who sell alcohol to patrons who later cause injury or death due to their intoxication. Importantly, the court narrowly interpreted the single exception in Business and Professions Code Section 25602.1, even where the circumstances provide a high probability that one minor may share alcohol with another minor. The result is that a vendor of alcohol is shielded from liability where an intoxicated minor causes injury to a third party, so long as the vendor did not “sell, or cause to be sold” the alcohol to the negligent minor.
For a copy of the complete decision see: