In a bizarre ruling, the Supreme Court of New Mexico has found that gas stations can be held liable for drunk driving accidents.
The court argued that selling fuel to intoxicated customers is “like providing car keys,” the Washington Examiner reported.
How did this happen?
The ruling in New Mexico originated with a 2011 incident in which a drunken man with more than double the legal limit of alcohol in his blood caused a fatal accident after gassing up, as the Santa Fe New New Mexican reported. A federal appeals court asked the state supreme court to weigh in on the liability of the vendor.
In the 3-1 ruling, the court found that while it is legal for vendors to sell gas to a drunk driver, they are liable for the customer’s actions under the “negligent entrustment” doctrine, which holds those in possession of “dangerous goods” responsible for supplying them to competent persons, the AP noted.
The pushback begins
The National Association of Convenience Stores said the court had essentially created a new law that unfairly burdens vendors with evaluating whether a customer is drunk.
“There are clear laws about age restrictions. You’ve got to make sure someone is old enough to sell them alcohol or tobacco,” counsel Doug Kantor said.
“But store clerks who sell gas just aren’t in a position to police whether people have been drinking or not or whether their mental state is impaired or not,” he added.
Kantor said he hopes the courts will acknowledge that the 2011 case was an exceptional one and should not become the basis of a burdensome new regime.
Dissenting, Judge Barbara Vigil appeared to agree, warning that the court was setting a potentially harmful precedent with “far-reaching consequences” for businesses.
She called the ruling a “sea change” that is both unnecessary, given existing regulation of alcohol sales, and unclear in explaining the responsibility vendors have to determine if a customer is drunk.
“Thus auto parts stores, tire shops, mechanics, and others will be left guessing as to whether they are subject to the new duty and, if so, how to behave so as to avoid liability,” she wrote.
Although vendors are wary, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) called the ruling “absolutely a win.”