Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law Tuesday that allows alcohol liability lawsuits against bars and restaurants but blocks suits against convenience and grocery stores, rejecting a claim that the distinction was unconstitutional.
A suburban St. Louis mother sought to sue the convenience store that sold her 20-year-old son a 12-pack on beer the night before his fatal 2004 car accident. But a trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, and the Supreme Court agreed that she had no grounds to sue under Missouri law.
That law allows liability suits only against those who sell liquor by the drink for consumption on site, and even then, only when certain criteria are met.
An attorney for Elois Snodgras, whose son Terry Keown died in the accident, claimed the law’s distinction violated the Missouri Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and open access to the courts.
During arguments Oct. 3, St. Louis attorney James Parrot claimed it was “irrational and arbitrary” to allow relatives of a minor sold alcohol by a bar or restaurant to sue but not relatives of a minor who bought alcohol from a convenience or grocery store. In either case, selling the minor alcohol is illegal, he said.
But the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision said there are several rational reasons for barring lawsuits against stores that sell packaged liquor to be consumed elsewhere.
First, bartenders have a better opportunity to judge whether customers onsite are underage or intoxicated. Second, sellers of packaged alcohol have no control over their customers once they leave the store, the court said. Finally, lawsuits are not the only means of achieving an objective, the judges said, noting that state law already makes it a misdemeanor to supply alcohol to a minor or for a minor to try to buy it.
“Although reasonable people may disagree about the efficacy of the regulations adopted by the Legislature, such disagreement does not establish an equal protection violation,” Judge Richard Teitelman wrote for the court.
The court also rejected an argument that the law violated a constitutional provision declaring “that the courts of justice shall be open to every person, and certain remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character.”
The Supreme Court said the law did not impose a barrier to the courts but rather defined the scope under which a lawsuit could be filed.
The 2002 Missouri law generally prohibits liability lawsuits against businesses when intoxicated people later injure or kill someone. But the law makes exceptions for lawsuits against onsite, liquor-by-the-drink businesses “when it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the seller knew or should have known” that the alcohol was served to someone younger than 21 or to a “visibly intoxicated person.”
The law was rewritten in response to a 2000 Supreme Court decision that struck down Missouri’s previous alcohol liability law dating to 1985. That law allowed lawsuits only if there was a criminal conviction of serving a minor or intoxicated person. The Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutionally limited people’s access to the courts, because the ability to file a civil lawsuit was contingent upon a prosecutor’s actions.