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Sat, Jun 18, 2005

Delta Dodges DUI Disaster

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 Delta airliner.

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 states.

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 deplaning.

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 recourse.



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