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Issues of proof when suing liquor permit holder for an accident

Not too long ago we covered the subject of the Ohio law that under some circumstances opens liquor permit holders up to liability claims when patrons who leave the establishment subsequently get into an accident that was the result of drunk driving. This post addresses one of the detailed provisions of the law, and how it can affect the ability of an injured person to file a lawsuit based on the question of whether the patron was "noticeably intoxicated."

The Ohio law in question, §4399.18 of Title 43, precludes lawsuits against liquor permit holders for injuries caused by their patrons off of the permit holder's premises unless the plaintiff can prove two things: (1) that the permit holder or one of its employees knowingly sold alcohol to a "noticeably intoxicated person" or an underage person, and (2) that such person's intoxication proximately caused the harm to the plaintiff.

Although seemingly simple on its face, the statutory language can be difficult to apply, especially when one considers the the meaning of the words "knowingly" and "noticeably intoxicated." A recent court decision by the Tenth Appellate District of the Ohio Court of Appeals illustrates this challenge.

The case in question is Piras v. Screamin Willie's, and arose out of a head-on collision between the plaintiff (Piras) and a musician who was providing entertainment at a bar and who had been drinking alcohol there. At the time of the accident the musician was driving the wrong way on an Interstate highway, and had a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit.

The plaintiff's lawsuit against the bar was summarily dismissed, however, because the trial court found that there was no evidence that the bar sold alcohol to the musician when he was "noticeably intoxicated."

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

What this case indicates is that identifying the facts of a patron's behaviors and the liquor permit holder's knowledge of those behaviors is critical in assessing whether a cause of action exists against the permit holder when the patron causes an accident later on. This will be a key concern for the plaintiff's personal injury counsel during the pre-trial investigation phase of the lawsuit, as well as during the lawsuit itself.

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