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Wrongful Death and DWI: Finally Seeing the Light

I. Serving Too Much

One of the first major cases in North Carolina to deal with holding a tavern responsible for excess sales to a drunk customer, happened not all that long ago. These were 1980s cases, and were also significant in that they developed the basic standards for assessing a change from traditional immunity for drunk driving into new responsibility of a tavern owner. In many ways, coming as the lawsuits did from groups like MADD, acting as a major change in society, a lot of credit should go to Charlotte wrongful death attorneys. The wrongful death specialty in law was instrumental in helping balance public safety on North Carolina highways with civil trial rights.

II. Details Of Drinking Loss: Self-serve memory?

The basic facts in a wrongful death case are not always self-evident. This can be especially true when a prominent local business, which sells alcohol in a variety of ways, may also be owned by undisclosed interests. The problem is even more complicated when employees may or may not be aware of their legal responsibility, or have an inadequate (or self-serving) memory of what they did at a particular time.

In the following case, the accident occurred within 15 minutes of the impaired person leaving the Reidsville bar. This allowed a Charlotte wrongful death attorney to be able to obtain medical evidence that helped reconstruct what happened to a very high degree of accuracy.

Donny Ray had been purchasing and drinking “a large number of beers” over a period of several hours. There seemed to be little doubt that Donnie Ray had become seriously intoxicated: it was revealed by the Charlotte wrongful death attorney, after Donny Ray’s arrest, that the BAC was 0.16 by weight.

In the aftermath of a head-on collision, there were two deaths. Donny Ray survived. Otis and his son Mark were both killed. Because of the tavern’s involvement in ‘allegedly’ serving alcohol to a visibly impaired person, the owners and operators of Brothers Lounge were also sued.

III.   DWI: Driven to Change

The importance of this case was that it laid out a pattern of responsibility of how to prove that a tavern could be held liable for providing liquor under the new North Carolina law. Because severe accidents often cause interruptions in the ability to test for drunk driving, it was also an important case for law-enforcement. In terms of strictly civil liability, there was a history of protection against taverns being sued for giving alcohol to intoxicated people. In fact, the common law rules on liability actually served to protect taverns and dram shops from being sued. The immunity concept was fairly straightforward. Having a public license to sell alcohol was seen as a basic protection: no one was forcing anyone to drink, so why would anyone other than the person taking a drink be responsible?

The answer to the question of “Why broader social responsibility for tavern or saloon owners?” was in many ways driven by the need to do something to prevent wrongful DWI/DUI deaths. The rise of the automobile had changed the dangers of public drinking. Yet, even today, an experienced Charlotte wrongful death attorney recognizes that there can still be a prejudice against holding certain owners responsible. To make sure that the system is both fair in fact and in appearance, this case was instrumental in creating an important process for evaluating whether or not a business should be held responsible for serving alcohol:

  1.  Did the business fail to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances as they existed at the time of service?
  •  Did the business in fact serve alcohol to the intoxicated party, while that person was in such a condition “as to be deprived of his willpower and responsibility” for his own behavior?
  •  Did the business owner know, or they should’ve known, that the intoxicated person habitually became drunk and that s/he would drive an automobile in a negligent way?
  •  Can the Charlotte wrongful death attorney actually show that they violated a specific general assembly law when they continued to sell alcohol to the person?
  •  Did they conduct business in such a way that they knew (or should’ve known) that their conduct of business in this way would or could reasonably foreseeably lead to death or serious injuries to third parties, who would be hurt by someone who became intoxicated and later drove?

Hopefully, this step-by-step approach, in an era of new types and methods of drug use, still provides safeguards that responsibility is properly allocated between the parties. Crucially, the decision by the Assembly to allow civil liability through a specific statutory law (GS 20-138/B) was a key, concrete breakthrough in addressing Dram Shop, or alcohol sales, as a broader and shared responsibility. It was, though, the specific application of these five step rules by experienced legal counsel, such as a Charlotte wrongful death attorney, that actually put teeth into this seismic shift in how to deal with drunk drivers in North Carolina.

IV.  From Old Immunity to New Responsibilities

At the time of this case, the Charlotte wrongful death attorney pointed out that the old rule of non-liability had been overturned in almost all other states than North Carolina. Most states simply gave cognizance to their legislative law as replacing the old common law rule. North Carolina seemed more reluctant about simply applying the Assembly law. The major issue presented by the Charlotte wrongful death attorney in this case was whether not North Carolina would specifically deal with the reasonable foreseeability of a third-party being harmed by someone who had been furnished alcohol – even if that furnishing of alcohol is a clear violation of a law. This potential gap between an Assembly law and traditional tort recovery was referred to by one judge as being something of “a vacuum.”

In dealing with how to fill this vacuum, the Charlotte wrongful death attorney made a very telling argument. Instead of being seen as overruling every aspect of traditional common law theory on personal responsibility, the attorney stressed the new law was a natural development. Under common law, there were obviously cases of where negligence was a substantial factor in causing an injury. The new law hadn’t changed that. Showing that a substantial factor had caused an injury, even in these old cases, never prevented liability because of an intervening act of a third person. So long as that third person’s act was also reasonably foreseeable. In this case, then, the fact that a parking lot was attached to the facility was one such basic indicator that driving was involved. And driving on a highway foreseeably involves other (third party) drivers. This helped reinforce the point that even under common law, as well as the Assembly change, that driving a vehicle was reasonably foreseeable.


It’s been hopefully emphasized enough that the “old” common law provided protection to people who served alcohol in North Carolina. It’s worth noting that the general reason for this defense in the common law was that it was the drinking of the alcohol, and not the selling of it, that was the cause of the injury. This case was a major change in that thinking. The case also involved the painful necessity of a surviving wife, acting to represent the wrongful death of a husband and young son. These particularly hard issues of survivorship and estates often require a special sensitivity and skill level, which is best addressed by working with an experienced Charlotte wrongful death attorney.

If you have been harmed by a DWI/DUI wrongful death, or if you need to know about any injury relating in death or severe and life-threatening injuries, or involving related claims or your rights after death of a loved one, including (but not only) dwi or DUI-related death, please contact us.  You will speak with an experienced Charlotte wrongful death attorney, who can best answer your questions about how your rights can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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