The Long Arm of Liability


Massachusetts' highest court has ruled that a livery service is liable for a drunk driving fatality caused by one of its customers—after he had been dropped off.  Seems like a helluva' stretch to get to negligence, here.

The Supreme Judicial Court found that Ultimate Livery Service Inc. of Boston and its driver, Richard Broderick, were negligent in a 2001 accident that killed an off-duty Boston police officer and left several other people with serious injuries.

The court said Broderick should not have dropped off a drunk passenger at a location where he would probably get into a car and drive.

Even here, I'd have a problem with the ruling.  But it's actually worse.  The service didn't drop the passenger off at a parking lot, or at his car.  It dropped him off at another bar.

William Powers, along with five other men, had hired Ultimate to take them to a bachelor party on the night of Aug. 11, 2001. The driver picked them up in a 15-passenger van at a South Boston sports bar, took them to a strip club in Rhode Island, then drove them back to the sports bar. The men drank in both bars and during the ride to and from Rhode Island.

Powers, joined by two of the men, drove away after being dropped off and had a violent intersection collision with another car. The crash killed Sean Waters, an off-duty police officer who was a passenger in the other car, and passengers in both cars were injured.

Lawsuits were filed by Waters's estate and the injured passengers, claiming that Ultimate and its driver were negligent in allowing Powers to leave the van at the Boston bar when they knew, or should have known, that Powers was probably going to drive a car while intoxicated.

Because the driver in this case helped Powers and his friends get drunk (he stopped so they could buy more liquor) the court could have just used this case to extend the state's dram shop liability laws.  That would have been bad enough.  But the notion that a driving service is somehow supposed to discern the intent of its customers after they leave the vehicle is absurd.  It also isn't difficult to see how that level of liability might put a damper on these sorts of services, which would actually make the state's roads more dangerous.

I also wonder what a taxi or limo driver who suspects an intoxicated passenger might drive at some point in the night is supposed to do, particularly if the customer demands to be let out.  Drive them around until they're sober?  Drive them to a police station?  Should they make possibly intoxicated passengers sign a waiver promising not to drive until they're sober?

(Thanks to David Boaz for the tip.)

CORRECTION:  The A.P. has posted a correction in the article linked above.  The court ruled that this particular case should be heard by a jury, and overruled a lower court's dismissal of the complaint.  The ruling basically holds open the possibility that driving services could be found negligent in these sorts of cases.  But barring a settlement, the Ultimate Livery Service case will now be tried before a jury.