Liquor Distributors Not Liable for Drunken Driving Crash

Liquor distributors can’t be held liable for a drunken driving crash during an Indian casino promotion that injured a Las Cruces, N.M., family, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

The May 2003 crash injured Joseph and Peggy Chavez and their young niece, Katrina Baca, and killed the drunken driver, George Starr, 23.

It occurred during the Memorial Day weekend opening celebration of the Mescalero Apache Travel Center Casino, which featured all-night alcohol service.

Starr, a casino employee, arrived at the casino on the second day of the promotion about 2 a.m. and left at 6:20 a.m., according to the court opinion.

When his car crossed the median on U.S. 70 a short time later and hit the Chavez family’s car, his blood alcohol content was 0.24, three times the legal limit.

The family members sued the casino, its insurer, and four liquor distributors who supplied alcohol during the promotion. The claims against the casino and its insurer were settled. A state district judge in Santa Fe dismissed the claims against the distributors, and the family appealed.

The family argued that the round-the-clock sale of liquor violated state law and the distributors should have refused to sell alcohol for it. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, agreeing with distributors that the state law governing hours is not applicable to Indian tribes.

Distributors aren’t required to determine the appropriateness of establishments’ policies when they sell them liquor, particularly when there is no indication the law is being broken, the appeals court also said.

And state law limits the liability for alcohol-related injuries and deaths to “those who actually exercised some degree of control over the service or consumption of alcohol,” which was not the case with the distributors, the court held.

The distributors named in the lawsuit were Desert Eagle Distributing Company of New Mexico, Joe G. Maloof and Company, National Distributing Company and Southern Wine & Spirits of New Mexico.