crime and punishment

Monday, December 14, 2009

The headline (in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat) was all too familiar:

“Santa Rosa winery to pay $3 million to teen injured in DUI”

The basics of the story suggested that the winery – Paradise Ridge – and a local 7-11 store had served and sold alcoholic beverages to an underage driver who later drove into some trees at a high rate of speed and permanently disabled his passenger. That passenger’s family sued the winery, the 7-11, and the driver.

According to the newspaper account, the winery was dinged for $3 million (to be covered by their insurance); the 7-11 will pay another half million (also covered by insurance) and the driver will pay $105,000, of which $100,000 is covered by his insurance.

The more you dig into the details of this story, the more you can’t help but conclude that the legal system is handing out the stiffest punishment to the least guilty party – the winery.

Paradise Ridge was simply a venue for a wedding on the day of the accident. The 19-year-old driver was served beer, not wine. Apparently he was served “six to eight beers” and was not ID’ed. He and his friend did not drive away; they were passengers when they left the winery. At that point, beer or no beer, the winery was (according to California law) apparently off the hook.

Upon reaching the driver’s home, he and his friend took off again – this time driving – and purchased two bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade at the nearby 7-11. What they drank or where they went after that is not told in the newspaper story, but the accident occurred after midnight, presumably a long time after the wedding beers had been consumed. The driver’s blood-alcohol level was .14 – certainly over the legal limit, but not in blackout range by a long shot.

So when it all shakes out, two young men, who knew they were breaking the law by purchasing and consuming alcohol, drove off into the night and wrecked a car. The driver was given a nine month jail sentence for his DUI – no idea how much if any of that was served. His legal fees were picked up by the insurance company (make that you and me). Why the winery was given the lion’s share of the fine and not the 7-11 is beyond me. It seems that the booze that put the driver over the line had to be the hard lemonade, consumed last.

But the real question is this: shouldn’t the bulk of the damages be paid by the driver? Why is the winery getting slammed so hard? Apparently, says the newspaper, this lawsuit was the exception to the California law that excludes bars, wineries and other licensed retailers from culpability when accidents occur after drunks walk out the door. The exception arises when alcohol is served to obviously intoxicated minors. The law does not seem to have any notion of personal responsibility when the “minor” is 19 years old and fully aware of what he/she is doing.

In comparison, if some wacko goes out and kills, say, four police officers who are sitting in a coffee shop on a Sunday morning, as just happened here in the Seattle area, I don’t see their families getting multi-million dollar awards from the gun and bullet manufacturers. How about penalizing the dealer who sold the gun and ammo? The way the laws seem to work, they’d be more likely to wring money from the coffee shop owner, who had the misfortune to be the owner of the location where this brutality occurred.

Don’t misread me – the violence against the officers was awful and unforgivable, and those families should be compensated for their loss, inasmuch as money can compensate. But if a winery can be fined $3 million for pouring a few beers, shouldn’t there be some similar trail of culpability for crimes of homicide?


Anonymous said...

My father went through something similar. He owned a bar. One night an obviously drunk man walked in. They refused to serve him so he left. He wandered out into the road and was hit by a car. The family sued my father and the bar.
My father's lawyer said he could lose the bar, our home and everything else we owned. He settled and sold the bar.
We have a crazy system that needs reforming.

Jo Diaz said...

This is such a travesty. Why weren't they both arrested for under aged drinking? Kids who break the law and are made to suffer the consequences of their actions (karma) are always held not responsible. Again, it's such a travesty of justice.

Thanks for putting it into perspective, Paul. Yes, kids make mistakes, and they learn by having to pay for their consequences, not by being rewarded for bad behavior.

Ruth said...

At the mandated Washington State Aloholic Beverages Server's Training, the responsibility of the pourer to check ID and not pour for people exhibiting drunken behavior was thorougly emphasized. If you do either of the above, and a person you served moves on and continues to drink elsewhere and then is involved in some sort of accident, you can be held partially liable. In the Santa Rosa case, the winery pourer broke the law. I don't know why they took the brunt of the lawsuit, I would've thought the 7/11 store employee also didn't card the young men and therefore would've been equally as liable.
As for the police murders, it would seem that if the gun was obtained legally the person who sold the gun would not be liable. It all comes down to the law.

Ken said...

It seems obvious that the person or company with the biggest insurance policy pays the most-otherwise what else is there to motivate a ambulance chasing lawyer to get up in the morning. I agree with a previous comment, seems like the cops take a line that if you injure yourself while committing a crime, then the injury is considered your "punishment", and while I don't wish ill on anyone, both kids should have under age drinking convictions on their records. When will we get around to enforcing personal resposibility!

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