Georgia Supreme Court Holds Convenience Store Liable Under Dram Shop Act

On July 5, 2011, in a 6-1 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the Georgia dram shop act applied to a convenience store, owned by Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia (“Exprezit!”), making it clear that the dram shop act not only applies to bars and restaurants that furnish alcohol to patrons, but that it also applies to grocery and convenience stores that sell or furnish alcoholic beverages.  The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the Georgia Court of Appeals, which refused to apply the dram shop act to the convenience store because it “would lead to wholly impracticable results.”  Flores v. Exprezit! Store 98-Georgia, LLC, __ S.E.2d __ (2011), 2011 WL 261033.

The case stems from a motor vehicle accident in which six people were killed and several others were injured.  According to court records, at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon on Jan 3, 2004, Billy Joe Grundell (“Grundell”) drove to a convenience store, owned by Exprezit!, to purchase alcohol.  Grundell was noticeably intoxicated when an employee of the convenience store sold him a 12-pack of beer.  Approximately four hours later, Grundell, accompanied by a passenger, was driving on Georgia Highway 84 when he lost control of his vehicle.  Grundell’s vehicle crossed the centerline and ran head-on into an approaching van.  At the time of the accident Grundell’s blood alcohol concentration was 0.181 grams per 100 milliliters, over twice the legal limit.  As a result of the accident, six people were killed, including the van’s driver, three of its passengers, Grundell and his passenger.

Following the accident the family of six year old Nancy Flores, and others who were injured, filed a lawsuit against the convenience store and its employee for selling alcohol to Grundell.  The lawsuit alleged that under Georgia’s dram shop act, the convenience store was liable because the employee sold packaged beer to Grundell when Grundell was noticeably drunk.  O.C.G.A. § 51-1-40, provides in pertinent part that “a person who willfully, knowingly, and unlawfully sells, furnishes, or serves alcoholic beverages to a person who is not of lawful drinking age, knowing that such person will soon be driving a motor vehicle, or who knowingly sells, furnishes, or serves alcoholic beverages to a person who is in a state of noticeable intoxication, knowing that such person will soon be driving a motor vehicle, may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such minor or person when the sale, furnishing, or serving is the proximate cause of such injury or damage.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Hugh Thompson wrote that based on the wording of the dram shop act, “it is clear that it was intended to encompass the sale of an alcoholic beverage at places other than the proverbial dram shop.”  Flores, 2011 WL 2610393.  The majority relied on the plain language of the statute to hold the convenience store liable under the dram shop act.  The majority held that, “when a convenience store sells alcoholic beverages to a customer it will often have an opportunity to observe how the customer arrived and, conversely, the manner in which he will depart. Thus, a convenience store may very well know if a customer will soon be driving a motor vehicle. Moreover, the convenience store seller does have an opportunity to observe the customer to determine if he appears to be noticeably intoxicated.”  Id.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling in this case is significant for drunk driving accident victims and their families.  The holding makes it clear that victims of drunk driving accidents or their families can now hold not only restaurants and bars liable for recklessly furnishing alcohol to noticeably intoxicated patrons, but also grocery and convenience stores that sell alcohol to customers who are noticeably intoxicated.