Drunk Driving Death Suit Claims Blocked By Ariz. State Law
By Mike Curley
March 29, 2022
An Arizona appeals court on Tuesday threw out an $800,000 verdict against a strip club accused of overserving a patron who later killed two people in a car accident, saying the state’s so-called dram shop liability law preempts the common law negligence claims that led to the verdict.
In the opinion, the three-judge panel undid a jury verdict that held that JAI Dining Services Inc., which owns the Jaguars club, was responsible when one of its patrons, Cesar Aguilera Villanueva, left the bar, then hours later got into his car to drive an acquaintance home, leading to the fatal crash.
The three-judge panel said that recent state Supreme Court rulings led it to conclude its own prior ruling that allowed similar negligence claims to go forward was mistaken and that the state constitution’s anti-abrogation clause only applies to common law causes of action that existed when the clause went into effect in 1912.
While JAI had not raised this issue during trial, and the plaintiffs argued they forfeited the argument, the panel found that it was an important issue to resolve in state law and allowed the appeal to proceed, according to the opinion.
The opinion tracks the institution and interpretation of the state’s dram shop law, passed in 1986, which limits liability of alcoholic establishments for injuries and death proximately caused by the sale of alcohol to someone “obviously intoxicated.”
In 1995, the Arizona Court of Appeals found that law to be in conflict with the state constitution’s anti-abrogation clause, which preserves common law causes of action, such as for common negligence.
In Tuesday’s opinion, however, the panel wrote that its 1995 ruling was in error, based on decisions at the state Supreme Court, most recently in 2003, in which the justices held that the anti-abrogation provision was designed to protect rights of action that existed when it was adopted in 1912.
The panel further noted that Arizona courts had “uniformly rejected” lawsuits before 1912 seeking to hold alcohol establishments liable for injuries stemming from the sale of alcohol, so the common law did not contain a right of action for such claims at the time.
As such, that specific common law cause of action, seeking common negligence claims against an alcohol-selling establishment for injuries and deaths related to the sale of alcohol, are not protected by the anti-abrogation clause, and thus the state’s dram shop law preempts the claims in this case, the panel held.
“We are pleased with the decision,” Eric M. Fraser of Osborn Maledon PA, representing JAI Dining, told Law360 on Tuesday. “Today’s opinion gives the hospitality industry much-needed clarity and restores an important statute that the Arizona legislature enacted.”
Representatives for the plaintiffs could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
The plaintiffs in the suit – Roberto Torres, Orlenda Guillen, Hernan Gastelum Rosas and Maria Suarez – are relatives of the two people killed by Aguilera when he crashed his pickup truck, going 86 miles an hour, into a car stopped at a red light. The accident occurred at around 5 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2015, and Aguilera was arrested at the scene and later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
According to court documents, Aguilera drank six or seven beers at Jaguars the night of the accident and was told to leave by the club’s bouncers around 2 a.m. after getting into an altercation with a club employee. Aguilera then drove to his brother’s house, and a couple of hours later a friend drove Aguilera home in his own truck, at which point Aguilera went to sleep. His girlfriend woke him up at some point and asked him to drive her friend home, and it was after doing so that he caused the fatal crash.
Aguilera was later convicted of two counts of manslaughter and is currently in prison, according to the opinion.
The plaintiffs won a $2 million verdict, and JAI was found 40% at fault, resulting in the $800,000 verdict, but in July 2020, an appeals panel vacated the judgment, agreeing with JAI that Aguilera’s decision to get back on the road after getting home was an intervening cause of the accident and the restaurant’s liability ended when he got home.
In November 2021, the state Supreme Court reinstated the judgment, saying there’s no case law supporting the finding that Villaneuva’s decision to get back in the car after going home and sleeping was an intervening cause in the accident but remanded to the appeals court to consider JAI Dining’s other objections to the verdict.
Judges Lawrence F. Winthrop, Maria Elena Cruz and David B. Gass served on the panel.
The plaintiffs are represented by David L. Abney of Ahwatukee Legal Office PC, Robert F. Clarke of Clarke Law Offices and Matthew D. Koglmeier of Koglmeier Law Group PLC.
JAI Dining is represented by Eric M. Fraser, Joshua D. Bendor and Hayleigh S. Crawford of Osborn Maledon PA and Dominique Barrett of Quintairos Prieto Wood & Boyer PA.
The case is Torres et al. v. JAI Dining Services (Phoenix) Inc., case number 1 CA-CV-19-0544, in the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One.