Did the trial court properly grant summary judgment to a seller of alcohol in a death case involving underage drinking?
Respondent owns a business in Fairmont known as Westchester Village, which provides catering, banquet and conference services. During the evening of March 29, 2014, a group of minors, including Carrie Bragg, was illegally served alcohol while attending an event at Respondent’s business. The group left Westchester Village and met up with other minors at a bar. Eventually, they departed in two cars. One of the cars was owned by Bragg, who was intoxicated and asked a friend, Cole Valentine, to drive. Valentine had not attended the event held at Respondent’s business but was, nevertheless, intoxicated. While driving Bragg’s car, Valentine hit Ozzmond Michael and caused fatal injuries.
Petitioner, acting as administrator of Michael’s estate, sued Respondent for wrongful death. The case proceeded through discovery and Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted judgment in Respondent’s favor, noting that Bragg (who was present at Respondent’s business and served with alcohol) was not driving the car and that Valentine (who was driving the car) was neither present nor served with alcohol. Thus, Bragg’s entrustment of the car was an intervening cause.
Petitioner argues that the trial court departed from settled law by deciding issues of proximate cause and intervening cause as a matter of law. Historically, those are issues of fact that must be decided by the jury. Petitioner also attacks the trial court’s conclusion that Bragg’s entrustment of the car to Valentine was an intervening cause. The trial court focused on (1) the lapse of time, (2) the fact that Bragg’s car was located off the premises, and (3) the fact that the driver, Valentine, was not present or served at Respondent’s business. Petitioner cites Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W.Va. 77, 394 S.E.2d 61 (1990), a case where the defendant provided a keg of beer to an underage boy. Three days later, the boy and a friend consumed the beer and became intoxicated. The friend crashed the car in which he and the boy were riding, killing the boy. Petitioner maintains that, under Anderson, the proper question is not whether Respondent was somehow capable of stopping Bragg from entrusting the car or stopping Valentine from driving, but simply “whether the circumstances were foreseeable and gave rise to a duty on the part of [Respondent].”
Respondent: (Westchester Limited Partnership)
Respondent distinguishes Anderson, arguing that it “was not a negligent entrustment opinion.” The foreseeability issue in Anderson was whether a seller of alcohol could reasonably foresee that a minor will share the alcohol “with other minors, who will, in turn, become intoxicated and cause injury to themselves or others.” Here, there is no allegation that Bragg shared any alcohol with Valentine. Instead, the issue is whether Respondent could reasonably foresee that Bragg, while intoxicated, would entrust her car to another intoxicated minor. Because these eventualities were unforeseeable, Respondent did not owe any duty of care and the trial court correctly granted summary judgment.
This case, in isolation, is not critically important. Its unusual set of facts will not reoccur very often. The more important thing to watch for is the Supreme Court’s attitude toward foreseeability. If the Court sides with Respondent and takes a restrictive view of foreseeability, that would be a warning sign for plaintiffs in future tort cases. If, however, the Court adopts a broader view of foreseeability, we may see a willingness by the Court to embrace new and untested theories of liability in the future.