Suit Questions Liability of Alcohol-Related Death

by Kathy Tatone, Attorney at Law

March 20, 2008

Amanda Jax died of alcohol poisoning with a 0.46 blood alcohol level in October 2007. She died the morning after her 21st birthday, a few hours after celebrating with friends at Sidelines Bar & Grill in Mankato, Minn. Her parents filed the expected lawsuit against the bar but surprisingly included Jax’s friends who accompanied her on the binge. The suit claims the friends bought her drink after drink during a two-hour period, took her to a friend’s home where she passed out, carried her to bed, stayed with her while she was unconscious and vomiting and then left her alone to die. The lawsuit alleges that her friends are liable for creating a risk of harm to Jax by buying her alcohol after she was intoxicated and for leaving her alone in her apartment and failing to seek medical help.

The lawsuit has prompted comments by those who claim that Jax herself is responsible for her own death. However, according to a report from Minneapolis–St. Paul television station WCCO, Jax’s mother said that at some point, Jax was not able to make a rational decision about whether to drink more.

Expanding Liability

The suit is the first of its kind in the nation. Currently, the law does not impose any legal duty on a person to stop buying alcohol for a drinking companion nor to care for the drinking companion. The Jax case raises many questions, including what duty one friend has to another when buying alcohol.

Liability for injuries caused by alcohol is imposed by statute in most states. “Dram shop” laws make bars liable for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person. Critics argued that the drinker had the personal responsibility to stop drinking before becoming intoxicated. However, legislatures across the county decided that the public needed protection from intoxicated drivers. Likewise, “social host” statutes impose liability on a host who provides alcohol to a minor who injures himself or herself or others.

The Jax case tests whether personal injury law should expand liability for serving alcohol beyond the provisions of dram shop and social host laws. The case proposes two new types of liability: liability for buying alcohol for an intoxicated person and liability for failing to seek medical care for an unconscious, intoxicated person.

Barry Feld, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the defendants might be liable in this case because Jax and her friends had a “special relationship.” Legally, a special relationship is one in which a trusting connection exists between the plaintiff and the defendant. In such cases, the law obligates one party to care for the safety of the other.

Feld also said Jax’s friends might be liable because they helped create her inability to care for herself. “If you cause the person distress,” he said, “then you have a duty to alleviate it. You don’t have to rescue someone you see drowning in a lake, but if you are the one that pushed them in you have to get them out safely.”

The Jaxes’ lawyer states that Jax’s friends not only contributed to her intoxication but also left her in a location where no one else could rescue her. In order to prevail under Minnesota law, the Jaxes must prove not only that a special relationship existed between Jax and her friends but also that the friends had control over her after she became intoxicated and failed to provide for her safety.

Jax’s friends agree they had a moral responsibility to take care of her but disagree that they had a legal responsibility. Mark Solheim, the attorney for one of the defendants, told Minnesota Public Radio that his client had no legal obligation for good reason. “Let’s say I have you over for dinner and at some point I say to you, ‘That’s your third glass of wine. I have a duty to stop you.’ Where does that end? How long would that duty last?” he said. “What if you fell down and hit your head the next day? How long am I liable?”

Jury Responsibilities

In the Jax case, the jury first must determine whether Jax and her friends had a special relationship, creating a duty of care, and, if so, whether a reasonable person would have known that continuing to provide alcohol to Jax was putting her in danger. The jury might consider whether it is unfair to require someone to recognize when a friend is intoxicated and to know when to stop serving him or her alcohol. Bartenders receive training in this area and thus might be able to recognize signs that a person should stop drinking.

No one knows whether the friends drank as much as Jax did, although it is hard to fathom that their blood alcohol content was as high as hers. If, at some point, the friends were themselves so intoxicated that they were incapable of rational choice, they may have been unable to recognize her intoxication or determine how to care for her. The more intoxicated they were, the more responsibility the bar bears for serving five obviously intoxicated people rather than one.

Next, the jury will decide what percentage of fault was Jax’s and what percentage was her friends’. It is not likely that a jury will impose liability for providing her first few drinks, but it might for providing the 10th drink.

The jury also will determine whether a reasonable person would have known that leaving Jax alone and not calling 911 was risking her life. Her friends assumed control over her by taking her to an apartment. No one else could observe her condition and call 911 on her behalf. Although the friends exercised control, it may not be reasonable to assume they were aware of the danger.

Kathy Tatone is an attorney based in Minneapolis. Her primary areas of practice are estate planning, elder law and personal injury.