Georgia Supreme Court Rules Airline Not Liable
The Georgia Supreme
Court has just let Delta Airlines off the hook. The court ruled,
6-1, that the airline was not liable for a drunk-driving accident,
when the man that caused the accident had been served alcohol in a
The decision reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed a
district court ruling dismissing the case against Delta. The
airline was hauled into court by a novel interpretation of a
long-standing law that has counterparts in most American
For Jack Townsend, the plaintiff in the landmark case, one night
in 2001 changed his life forever. Townsend's Taurus was hit head-on
by a massive Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo SUV that crossed the lines
on the road into Townsend's lane. Townsend still lives with the
consequences of his accident.
The Jeep driver, Charles Serio, pled guilty in 2003 to
drunk-driving and other charges, and was sentenced to probation.
And Townsend sued Serio, and also sued the last entity to serve
Serio alcohol: Delta Airlines.
Georgia's Dram-Shop Act exposes "anyone" who serves alcohol to
anyone who's already intoxicated and is expected to drive to
liability. There seemed to be no dispute that Serio was drunk, or
that Delta had served him wine that evening on a flight from
Milwaukee to Atlanta. The crux of the case became whether Delta
could reasonably expect a drunk passenger to go driving after
The court ruled that even though the normal expectation of
owners of bars and lounges ought to be that patrons would leave and
start driving cars right away, such a presumption wasn't reasonable
for airlines. An airline passenger might, indeed, drive, but he
would be more likely to catch another plane, take a taxi or bus, or
be picked up at his destination.
Justice George H. Carley wrote the majority opinion. Chief
Justice Norman S. Fletcher wrote in dissent that "[t]he plain
language of [the law] would clearly apply to a person serving
alcohol anywhere," not just to land-based shops.
The ruling carries the weight of precedent in Georgia courts;
other states' courts may consider, but are not bound by, the
Georgia ruling. Most states have a law similar to Georgia's
Dram-Shop Act; it has been used to shift liability from dead and/or
penniless drunk drivers to the deeper pockets of businesses, and
allow victims of such drunk drivers to have some practical legal