When Filling Up Leads to Felonies and Civil LiabilityWhen last call comes, bartenders often find themselves in a mad dash to sell the last of their drinks. If their patrons are already drunk, legally, the bartenders should cut them off to ensure that they don’t drink and drive, lest they find themselves (and their establishment) named in a civil lawsuit. In Tennessee, you can also find yourself in legal hot water if you sell gasoline to a visibly drunk person – one of only two states where it is possible to sue a service station under dram shop laws.

In West v. East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co., the Supreme Court of Tennessee found that owners and operators of service stations and convenience stores owe “a duty to act with reasonable care under all the circumstances,” including “selling gasoline to an obviously intoxicated driver and/or assisting an obviously intoxicated driver in pumping gasoline into his vehicle created a foreseeable risk to persons on the roadways, including the plaintiffs.” As such, if a drunk driver buys gas and then crashes his or her car, injuring others, the injured parties can name the gas station in a civil lawsuit.

Understanding Tennessee’s dram shop laws

A “dram” is how bartenders would sell alcohol to patrons, so a bar or tavern was sometimes called a dram shop. The name didn’t stick in public use, but it’s still used in legal circles to explain a civil case where a third party can be held liable for injuries caused by a crash with a drunk driver. Under Tennessee law, a bar, restaurant, banquet hall, gas station, or other seller of alcohol can be held liable if “the sale by such person of the alcoholic beverage or beer was the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained and that such person:

  1. Sold the alcoholic beverage or beer to a person known to be under the age of twenty-one (21) years and such person caused the personal injury or death as the direct result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage or beer so sold; or
  2. Sold the alcoholic beverage or beer to a visibly intoxicated person and such person caused the personal injury or death as the direct result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage or beer so sold.”

Dram shop laws are civil laws, not criminal ones, so you won’t go to jail if you overserve a patron (though you could face criminal charges for selling to someone underage), but you may be on the hook for significant sums of money if you are sued, and business insurance may not pay it. The same is true if you operate a service station: you may not face criminal charges, but you could face steep fines and be forced to pay compensation to the injured party.

It is worth noting, though, that the standard of proof for a dram shop suit is higher than the “preponderance of evidence” usually needed for other civil suits. As a victim, you need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the bar, gas station, or other party’s sale of alcohol to a drunk driver was the proximate cause of your injuries.

How are dram ship laws different from social host laws?

At every party, it seems, there’s always that one person who insists he or she can drive home safely no matter how he or she had to drink. If you are the person or establishment hosting that party – i.e., a social host – you could find yourself named in a civil lawsuit if and only if the partygoers are under the age of 21. Adults who serve alcohol to minors could face civil liability for negligence as a social host, as well as criminal charges.

Are DUIs that lead to injuries felonies in Tennessee?

Yes, they are. DUI charges can be felony charges when someone is seriously injured:

  • Vehicular Assault: Class D felony. This charge can apply to a driver under the influence if another person sustains serious injuries in a crash. Jail time between 2 and 12 years, and license revocation for 1 to 5 years.
  • Aggravate Vehicular Assault: Class C felony. A conviction can result in incarceration between 3 and 15 years. To be charged with aggravated vehicle assault, a person must have committed vehicular assault, plus:
    • Has two (2) or more prior convictions for driving under the influence of an intoxicant, as defined in § 55-10-401; or
    • Has one (1) or more prior convictions for:
    • Vehicular assault;
      • Vehicular homicide, as defined in § 39-13-213(a)(2); or
      • Aggravated vehicular homicide, as defined in § 39-13-218; or
    • Had an alcohol concentration in the person’s blood or breath of twenty-hundredths of one percent (0.20%) or more at the time of the offense; and
    • Has one (1) prior conviction for driving under the influence of an intoxicant, as defined in § 55-10-401.
  • Vehicular Homicide: Class B felony. This charge applies if a person with a BAC of at least .08 causes a fatal car accident. The driver faces between 8 and 30 years in prison, and license revocation for between 3 and 10 years.
  • Aggravated Vehicular Homicide: Class A felony. This is the most serious felony DUI charge, and can result in 15 to 60 years in prison. To be charged with crime, the driver must:
    • Have two (2) or more prior convictions for:
      • Driving under the influence of an intoxicant;
      • Vehicular assault; or
      • Any combination of such offenses;
    • The defendant has one (1) or more prior convictions for the offense of vehicular homicide; or
    • There was, at the time of the offense, twenty-hundredths of one percent (0.20%), or more, by weight of alcohol in the defendant’s blood and the defendant has one (1) prior conviction for:
      • Driving under the influence of an intoxicant; or
      • Vehicular assault.
    • Child Endangerment: Class D felony (if the child is injured) or Class B felony (if the child dies). Penalties are determined by the charge. The child must be under the age of 18 in order for a driver to face child endangerment charges.

Each one of these felony DUI charges will also cost you thousands – potentially tens of thousands – of dollars in fines, court costs, associated fees, and so forth. You will have your license revoked and you may be denied a restricted license. You may be required to install an ignition interlock device – and you’ll be required to pay for it, too.

Whether you have been charged with a felony DUI, named as liable party in a dram shop claim, or are dealing with the aftermath of a crash, Delius & McKenzie has you covered. Our experienced Sevierville attorneys handle both personal injury claims and criminal defense, and we put that diverse background to work for you. To schedule a consultation, please call 865-428-8780 or fill out our contact form. Proudly serving Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Tennessee.