The Difference Between Moral and Civil Responsibility

The New York Daily News reports that the family of a high school student in New York, who was killed in a stolen vehicle hit-and-run drunken driving accident, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver of the car, the owner, and the family that hosted an underage drinking party.

It is an easy decision case against the adult hit-and-run drunk driver who also will face criminal liability. The merits of the case against both the owner of the vehicle and the family that hosted an underage drinking party where they gave the victim—not the driver—alcohol, is more problematic, even from a personal injury lawyer with an admittedly pro-plaintiff world view.

About half of the states have enacted Dram Shop statutes, which permitted the imposition of civil liability on suppliers of intoxicating beverages in certain circumstances. Only a few states take the position that there was no civil liability for serving alcohol.

But Maryland is one of those few states [Still, in 2013.]. Maryland courts will not distinguish a case where the alcohol was served to minors in the home with the parents’ consent (Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion in Hebb v. Walker.

This is another bad and outdated Maryland law. Almost every state goes the other way on this. But this New York case is trickier than “the adults give kids alcohol, and then the kids go out and hurt someone in an accident” scenario. Both the pedestrian victim and the driver were drunk. The wrongful death lawsuit names the parents who allowed the pedestrian/victim to drink alcohol at a party.

Honestly, and the New York Daily News has a picture of this handsome boy and his parents that is downright heartbreaking, I have a hard time placing civil liability on the parents that allowed him to drink alcohol in their home. There are cases where someone is morally responsible—which I think is hard to deny in this case—but should not be civilly responsible.

I think this is one of them. A sixteen-year-old boy is blameless in the enormous picture in this case in every way that matters now. But his own behavior should—I think at least—negate the liability of the parents that allowed him the have alcohol. I realize this opinion is not out of the plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer manifesto. But I didn’t check my own views at the door when I became a plaintiffs’ lawyer.
The claim against the owner is similarly questionable to me. The plaintiffs’ lawyers told the New York Daily News that the owner of the car was negligent for the car accident because the owner left the keys in the car, making it easy to steal. “It’s an act of negligence for a person to leave their car with the motor running and easily accessible to anyone who wants to steal it,” said one plaintiff’ accident lawyers (they appear to have more than one firm involved).

Maybe leaving your keys in the car is, theoretically, negligence. I guess losing my car keys—like I always do—is negligence. But the only duty I have when this happens is the duty to my wife, who must help me look for them. Extending liability under the theory that “it is foreseeable that someone drunk will steal your car and hurt someone” is just too much for me.

I appreciate these lawyers doing everything they can to find insurance and maximize the recovery in this case. This is what they should do in the advocacy system. But they would be glad to know that I will not be the judge or jury in any claim against the parents that served the alcohol to the victim or against the owner of the stolen vehicle.

2019 Update: Funny thing is, I totally flipped positions on this. Just too many deaths from drunk people in bars.

  • In 2016, Maryland takes a small step towards switching its position on dram shops.
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