North Carolina High Court Rejects Dram Shop Claim Against Hotel in Woman’s Death

The estate of a woman who died after a night of heavy drinking while celebrating with her husband at a hotel restaurant cannot successfully sue the owners because her actions contributed to her death, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a 4-3 ruling, the justices reversed a state Court of Appeals ruling that found operators of the Crowne Plaza Tennis & Golf Resort in Asheville had violated their duty to stop serving Lisa Mary Davis in October 2012 when she became visibly intoxicated. That court decided that Davis’ husband – the estate’s administrator – could seek monetary damages under a so-called “dram shop” claim.

But the majority of justices agreed the factual allegations in the complaint establish his wife’s contributory negligence, which essentially canceled out any liability by the owners and operators of the resort and Milligan’s restaurant.

“The events leading up to the decedent’s death are undeniably tragic,” Associate Justice Barbara Jackson wrote for the majority. “However, in this state contributory negligence precludes recovery for a plaintiff when, as here, the complaint alleges facts that demonstrate the plaintiff’s decedent exhibited the same level of negligence as the defendant.”

Thomas and Lisa Mary Davis had traveled from Charlotte to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary at the resort. In 4 1/2 hours over dinner at Mulligan’s, the couple ordered 24 liquor drinks, of which Lisa Mary Davis consumed at least 10, according to the lawsuit.

She fell down in a hallway after leaving the restaurant and was so intoxicated that an employee used a wheelchair to move her to the couple’s room, the lawsuit said. The next morning, her husband found her dead on the floor. Acute alcohol poisoning was the cause of death, Friday’s decision said.

In the dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Robin Hudson wrote the majority had used the wrong legal standard.

A jury should be allowed to determine whether “gross negligence” by the restaurant staff had occurred – marked by reckless actions that had disregarded safety, Hudson wrote. In contrast, the factual allegations in the case don’t appear to show Lisa Mary Davis’ actions reach a similar level of gross negligence that would bar the claim, she wrote.

“I am unaware of any decision from this court holding that drinking to the point of intoxication in a safe location, absent accompanying allegations of impaired driving or other conduct, constitutes gross negligence as a matter of law,” Hudson wrote.

On the dram shop claim, a trial court judge initially sided with the defendants listed in the lawsuit, which included Hulsing Enterprises LLC and Hulsing Hotels Inc. Other claims also were dismissed after a jury trial.