Change In Evidence Requirements For Dram Shop Claims

New Mexico Dram Shop laws were enacted to assign liability to persons or establishments who serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. If the intoxicated individual later causes personal injury or property damage because of their intoxication–say by driving drunk–the establishment can be found liable for serving them alcohol.

Under the New Mexico Dram Shop Liability Act, plaintiffs have to prove that the establishment served alcohol to a patron when it was “reasonably apparent” to the establishment that the patron was intoxicated.

Proving a dram shop claim can be difficult. In the past, defendant establishments have tried to avoid liability in many ways. Some defendants have claimed that if the specific server could not be identified so that there was no way to prove that it was reasonably apparent to that server that the patron was intoxicated.

In other cases, there is no direct evidence to prove that it was “reasonably apparent” that the patron was intoxicated because there were no independent witnesses and establishment employees will not testify that they knew the patron was intoxicated.

In Gutierrez v. Meteor Monument, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently made it significantly easier to bring a dram shop claim against an establishment. Gutierrez held that identification of the particular server is not essential to a dram shop case and circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to prove that it was “reasonably apparent” that a patron was intoxicated at the time he or she was served alcohol.

The underlying suit in Gutierrez dealt with a patron who consumed several beers and malt liquor before he crashed his car into a motorcycle an hour later, ultimately resulting in the motorcycle rider‘s death. The rider‘s estate and family successfully sued the patron and Meteor, the establishment where he had been drinking prior to the crash. The defendant establishment appealed and the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed the dram shop verdict against it, holding that since there was no evidence of the specific employee who served the patron, there was no evidence to support the finding that the patron‘s intoxication was “reasonably apparent” to that server.

The New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that the “reasonably apparent” standard for dram shop liability is an objective standard that does not depend on the personal, individual perception of any specific server. On the contrary, the “reasonably apparent” standard applies to any server who should have known that the customer was intoxicated because the intoxication would have been “visible, evident, and easily observed.” The Court continued by explaining that if the “reasonably apparent” standard were a subjective one, there would be very few successful dram shop claims because employees and establishments would be able to avoid liability by testifying that they did not think that the patron was intoxicated.

Next, the Court went on to discuss circumstantial evidence acceptable under this objective standard to prove apparent intoxication at the time of service. While testimony of other witnesses present at the time is widely accepted as circumstantial evidence to prove apparent intoxication, in many cases, this testimony doesn‘t exist. Many establishments argue that this should be the only circumstantial evidence admissible. The Court in Gutierrez, however, listed several other sources of evidence including the patron‘s own testimony as to how many drinks he or she consumed, how long the patron was present at the establishment, the observations of police officers at the accident scene, and the results of Breathalyzer tests. In Gutierrez, the court discussed the fact that the patron was known to be an alcoholic by the defendant‘s employees, that he was a regular customer of the defendant, and that he was usually visibly intoxicated by early afternoon. The Court also discussed the observations of police officers at the time of the accident, one hour after Defendant served the patron his last drink, as well as the results of a subsequent sobriety test and blood alcohol level tests.

This decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court is likely to have an impact on personal injury and wrongful death claims based on dram shop laws. By making it clear that the identity of a particular server is not necessary for a successful claim, and by expanding the allowable circumstantial evidence to prove apparent intoxication, the Court has made it easier for personal injury victims to bring a dram shop claim against a negligent establishment.

If you or loved one has been injured or harmed by a drunk driver, and that driver was highly intoxicated, the first question should be how is it that the driver reached that state of intoxication? An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to assist in answering that question which may very well lead to a dram shop claim.

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