Evidence of a driver’s intoxication after leaving a bar should have gone to the jury, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on April 2nd, 2018

The fact that a person is intoxicated shortly after leaving a bar is sufficient evidence to submit to a jury in a lawsuit alleging liability under Iowa’s dramshop statute.

Thus said a divided Iowa Supreme Court on March 30 in Banwart v. 50th Street Sports. The decision, written by Justice David Wiggins and joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel, reversed both the Polk County District Court, which dismissed the civil suit on summary judgment, and the Iowa Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court.

Justice Edward Mansfield filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager. The dissent criticized the majority for adopting “an overbroad blanket inference of negligence from intoxication” that “routinely sends to the jury all cases where the patron was intoxicated on leaving the establishment, regardless of their facts.”

Rhonda Banwart sued 50th Street Sports following an accident in which a patron of the West Des Moines bar smashed into the rear of her vehicle shortly after leaving the bar. The bar patron later pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated after a breath test showed her blood-alcohol level exceeded the legal limit.

The question before the Court: Is the bar liable under the State dramshop statute, which provides a right of action against a liquor license-holder that serves intoxicating liquor to an intoxicated person and that “knew or should have known the person was intoxicated” or that served the person to a point where it “knew or should have known the person would become intoxicated.”

The plaintiff has the burden under the statute of proving the defendant’s knowledge of the patron’s intoxication, and the Court cited its 2004 decision in Smith v. Shagnasty’s that said the plaintiff in that case met the burden based on events that took place at the bar. But the Court left open the question of whether evidence gathered later of a person’s intoxicated condition could by itself give rise to a question of fact for a jury to consider.

In Banwart, the Court said it could.

The patron testified she exhibited no signs of intoxication at the bar and that she consumed no more alcohol after leaving the bar shortly before the crash. But the Court said she was clearly intoxicated when she left the bar based on the police officer’s observations at the accident scene and based on a Datamaster breath test taken nearly three hours after she said she had consumed the last of three beers at the bar.

That raises enough questions for the case to be put to a jury, the Court ruled.

Summary judgment, Wiggins wrote, “is improper when sufficient evidence points to [a person’s] intoxicated condition shortly after his or her visit to the dramshop, even if the record lacks evidence regarding the [person’s] demeanor at the time of the dramshop’s service of alcohol.”

 

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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