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Humphrey v. Westchester Limited Partnership

Humphrey v. Westchester Limited Partnership

Case No. 
17-0885
Opinion Date: 
5/21/2019
Opinion Author: 
Memorandum Opinion
Decision 
Affirmed
Vote: 
4-1
Facts 

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. 

Issue 

Did the trial court properly grant summary judgment to a seller of alcohol in a death case involving underage drinking?

Analysis 

This case provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to expand the reach of foreseeability and to provide greater protection in cases where businesses illegally serve minors with alcohol.  Instead, the majority took a narrow view of foreseeability--allowing the business in question to escape liability and leaving the victim’s family without any compensation.

The Supreme Court issued a memorandum opinion that simply applied the law from Anderson.  Specifically, the Court found that “no rational trier of fact could find that [Respondent’s] negligence--serving alcohol to Bragg--was a proximate cause of the decedent’s death.”

According to the Court, Anderson adopted a theory holding businesses responsible for any “indirect sale” of alcohol to a minor.  In Anderson, a beer distributorship sold a keg of beer to a minor, Sean Anderson, who then shared the beer with a friend.  Eventually, the friend became intoxicated and drove a car in which Anderson was riding as a passenger.  The friend wrecked, killing Anderson.

In this case, however, the driver, Valentine, was not present at Respondent’s business, nor was there any indication that Bragg shared any alcohol from Respondent’s business with Valentine.  Thus, the majority found it was not reasonably foreseeable that Respondent’s act of providing alcohol to Bragg would cause the wreck hours later.

Justice Workman dissented, criticizing the majority for focusing its time and attention on “the precise mechanism of injury.”  As Justice Workman notes, “there is little question that serving alcohol to underaged individuals creates--in itself and without more--a risk of harm.”  When a minor becomes intoxicated, the result is a “demonstrable . . . lack of judgment.”  Negligent entrustment of a car is not only a foreseeable risk of this lack of judgment, but a probable one.  The entrustment of the car and the resulting injury produce “a nearly unbroken chain of causation.”  Unfortunately, the majority here focuses on minutia and, in the end, deprives the jury of right to resolve this issue for itself:  “The particular twists, turns, and stops with which the majority is preoccupied, but which a jury make conclude as merely incidental to this chain, do not necessarily serve to break it.”

Commentary 

This is clearly an opportunity lost.  To begin with, the majority has reduced the impact of Anderson itself.  Going forward, Anderson will be seen as nothing more than an endorsement of the “indirect sale” theory.  Beyond that, the majority’s approach shows that it is more than willing to declare, as a matter of law, that the chain of causation has been broken by anything it believes to be an intervening act.  In so doing, the Court shows its distrust of juries and, instead, choses to limit liability by judicial fiat. 

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