Joyce Fenstermaker was 71-years-old when she was struck and killed in a collision in the parking lot of the Titusville Moose Lodge. Sharon Brittain was driving her Jeep and was heavily intoxicated at the time of the crash. Brittain is currently incarcerated after a criminal conviction for involuntary manslaughter. The family of Fenstermaker has filed a claim of wrongful death in a Crawford County Court. The named defendants are Brittain and the Titusville Moose Club. The claim states that the club employees demonstrated “negligent, careless and reckless” conduct in serving alcohol to Brittain that evening.
Brittain submitted to a blood alcohol test that showed her level was .203%. This is more than twice the state's .08% legal limit for operating a vehicle. In the criminal action, she was sentenced to a minimum of 11 months in jail and several years of probation once released. The lawsuit seeks over $140,000 in damages from the defendants and requests a jury trial. Punitive damages, which are rarely awarded, are being sought in the claim.
Responsibility Under Pennsylvania Liquor Code
The Titusville Moose Lodge is a local club that is part of the Moose Fraternity that was established back in 1888. The Pennsylvania Liquor Code does allow for punitive damages to be imposed on those who sell alcohol to visually intoxicated persons (VIPs). This “dram shop liability” applies to bars, restaurants, and other private settings. These damages were put in place to punish and deter businesses that sell alcohol from serving patrons excessive amounts.
Pennsylvania Dram Shop Laws
- The PA Liquor Code does allow for civil liability against licensees under certain circumstances under sections 4-493 and 4-497 for “negligent service of alcohol”
- Licensees are not liable to third-parties for the actions of their customers unless the agent or employee provided the alcohol when the customer was visibly intoxicated
- Agents or employees of a licensee may not provide alcohol to minors (under 21)
- Liability for service to minors applies regardless of whether the individual was visibly intoxicated
- Expert testimony may be used to prove a patron was visibly intoxicated; however, this testimony alone is not sufficient proof
- Visible intoxication is generally determined according to the patron's appearance, conduct, and demeanor
Pennsylvania Social Host Liability
Social hosts may not be held liable for serving alcohol to adults who are guests. This applies regardless of whether the host was aware of the guest's intoxication or intent to operate a motor vehicle. The court has found that an “able-bodied” individual is responsible for their alcohol consumption rather than those providing it. Social hosts may be liable for “knowingly” providing or furnishing alcohol to minors. Liability does not apply to social hosts who did not plan, serve, supply or purchase alcohol.
Common Dram Shop Liability Defenses
Licensees may employ several defenses in these actions. The two most common are challenging that the patron was visibly intoxicated and that a lack of evidence exists to show causation. Defendants may seek to exclude evidence that relates to blood alcohol results or sobriety testing. Defendants may use a comparative negligence defense by asserting that the patron contributed some degree of negligence.