California's anti-dram shop laws limit legal liability for servers of alcohol, but there are exceptions.

Sacramento is a big place with a lot of people. While this makes for a very vibrant community, the downside of a large population is that unfortunate circumstances play out on a regular basis. On a recent episode of All Things Legal, Craig Ashton and Ed Schade discussed an unfortunate DUI accident that happened in Sacramento on Sunday, which resulted in the death of one person and injury to another driver. The team’s discussion of the accident shows just how complex DUI accidents can be when it comes to determining liability and the appropriate penalties for the damages and injuries caused.

Craig started out by going over the facts of the case: “What we have is a Joseph Short, who basically had a 0.35 blood alcohol level. The legal limit is 0.08, so 0.35 is… that’s seriously near ‘not being able to stand’ drunk. So he’s behind a wheel.

“Tragically what happened was a man came to his wife’s aid on Highway 50. She had run out of gas. So he was helping her fill the gas tank as a good husband would do, and they were both on the side of the road, and apparently this idiot decided that he was going to pass on the shoulder, rear-ended the car the husband was in and killed him.

“There are obvious criminal issues associated with driving under the influence when you injure somebody. It’s going to be a felony. In this particular case it could be, not negligent homicide, but gross vehicular manslaughter.”

As it turns out, some DUI-related deaths can result in murder charges, sometimes referred to as a ‘Watson Murder’

Ed stepped in and explained an important fact of the case: This was not the drunk driver’s first DUI. As it turns out, he had been incarcerated for a previous DUI charge back in 2010. As a consequence, he could face far stiffer charges than manslaughter, under California law: “Because this is his second DUI… when he had his first DUI, he had to go to DUI classes, and then he was instructed on what the consequences [of drunk driving are], and so what he’s going to get charged with is, it’s called a ‘Watson Murder,’ after a case called People v. Watson. And so now it’s implied malice, and it’s second degree murder, it’s not manslaughter. So he’s looking at a lonnnng haul.”

In California, if a drunk driver causes a death when they have an especially high blood alcohol content, or if they have been convicted of a previous DUI, this opens the door for murder charges. The reason for this is that for a person to be charged with manslaughter, they have to show a lack of judgment, or more precisely, ‘gross negligence.’ Whereas for murder, a person has to show ‘implied malice,’ meaning that they did something despite knowing that they could cause serious harm or death to someone else.

While DUIs are typically considered a crime of negligence, when someone chooses to become extremely drunk, or when they ignore previous instruction about the risks of DUIs, California law considers them to be acted in an intentionally malicious manner that makes them liable for a charge of second degree murder. In fact, California courts now require all persons convicted of a DUI to sign a statement known as a ‘Watson Advisement,’ in which they acknowledge that if they ever commit a DUI again and kill someone as a result, they can be charged with murder.

In the case of the Sacramento drunk driver, it’s unclear what charges he will face. But the fact that he has a previous DUI—with an even higher blood alcohol content of 0.36—and that his BAC was extremely high in the fatal accident certainly puts him at risk of a murder charge.

However, the driver also has civil liability, to which Craig then turned his attention.

Craig: “So if you remember O.J. Simpson, he was charged with first degree murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. He got acquitted, and then there was a civil case for the damages associated with that loss.”

As was the case with O.J. Simpson, a case involving murder can essentially be tried as both a criminal and as a civil matter. In the latter situation, someone alleged to be responsible for the death of someone can be held financially responsible for the loss suffered by a loved one, often a surviving spouse.

Craig continued: “And in a death case that would be the loss of love and comfort, which is a quantification… of the relationship between the couple. And then you’ve got the loss of support, which is, if this individual was earning an income, which would be part of community property, that would be part of the damages that would be associated with loss. You would take their age, get their work-life expectancy, and then take the number of years that they were unable to work due as a result of the loss, multiply it, and come up with a number. And then there may be some medical expenses associated with the death, and there would also be some funeral expenses.

“So those are the damages. Money is never an appropriate remedy. The magic wand to bring [a spouse] back is the best remedy possible. Unfortunately, that does not exist.

“So the reason that’s important is, usually when you get an idiot like this, idiots like this do not have assets. Idiots like this typically don’t have insurance. So this is another point where we can say, ‘Look, if you do not have underinsured motorist coverage, get it.’ Again, money is an imperfect remedy, but at least you can have a contract that protects you against morons, idiots, felons like this guy who’s driving at 0.35 and passing on the shoulder.”

In some rare cases, even a restaurant or a bar can be civilly liable for damages caused by a drunk driver.

During the discussion of the incident, it was mentioned that the DUI suspect is a head chef at a well-known local Sacramento restaurant. This raised an interesting hypothetical legal scenario: what if the suspect was drinking in his own restaurant prior to the accident? [Please note that this scenario is entirely hypothetical, and is raised simply as an opportunity to examine interesting aspects of California DUI law. There is no indication that the source of the driver’s alcohol was his place of work.]

In the discussion, Ed Schade pointed out that if the driver got drunk at his work, the state’s anti-dram shop laws would come into play. ‘Dram shop’ laws or acts are laws that allow the businesses or individuals that supply alcohol to someone—who later drives drunk and causes injury or death—to be held financially responsible for the damages and injuries caused by the driver. However, unlike most other states, California has passed legislation that severely limits the legal liability of alcohol suppliers. In most cases, they are immune from civil prosecution. But there are exceptions.

Craig: “So what Ed is saying with this is… California just says, ‘Look man. You’re having a barbecue, you go to a bar, and you drink too much, there may be a misdemeanor criminal charge [against the provider of the alcohol] for overserving somebody. But civilly speaking, when that person from your barbecue, Neighbor Ted, drives home, Neighbor Ted is responsible for all the civil damages. You are not, even if you gave Ted twenty shots of tequila. Period, end of story.’ That applies to bars, restaurants, etc.

“There is an exception. And on this show earlier, we talked about a jury verdict that happened in San Diego, where we had a line chef, who after work at a restaurant called On The Border… basically they would encourage their employees to drink, and they would get either discounts or free alcohol. And so the point that was made by the plaintiff’s counsel was, ‘Hey jury, this is what we would like you to consider. This is an exception to the rule… this guy’s really on the job. Even though he’s clocked out… he’s benefiting the bar and the restaurant because it makes it looks like it’s more crowded, and therefore people feel like this is the place to be.’

“They argued that to the jury; the jury said, ‘We agree with you.’ Even though the guy clocked out, he was on the job, and he got drunk on the job. That was benefiting the employer, and so therefore, before the alcohol wears off, the employer starts that tether of causation, and ultimately made the employer responsible for $1.5 million in damages to a very significantly injured person.”

DUIs are a complex legal situation with a very simple solution.

California DUI laws are very complicated, as the All Things Legal discussion about the tragic Sacramento accident shows. But there is a simple solution for DUIs: Don’t drink and drive.