In Oklahoma, it is strictly illegal to sell, provide, or deliver alcoholic beverages to someone who is "noticeably intoxicated."
This criminal law, commonly known as "dram shop" liability, was first interpreted by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Brigance v. Velvet Dove Restaurant, Inc. (Okla. 1986). The Court held that alcohol vendors (bars, restaurants, breweries, etc) are financially liable for damages caused in a car wreck by a patron who was served alcohol despite being visibly intoxicated. Put simply, alcohol vendors must pay third-parties any damages suffered as a result of a patron driving under the influence.
The Supreme Court clarified the scope of Oklahoma's dram shop law in Ohio Cas. Ins. Co. v. Todd (Okla. 1991), ruling that the principle does not permit an overserved adult patron to sue an alcohol vendor for damages sustained as a result of their own intoxication. In 2021, however, the Court granted certiorari of MeGee v. El Patio (Okla. 2023) and, pursuant to the case's compelling set of facts, considered whether an exception exists to the dram show law's parameters, as defined in Ohio Casualty.
While dining at El Patio on a Saturday in 2019, David Anthony Megee was served at least seventeen drinks over the span of seven hours. Later in the evening, a few employees bet Megee $200.00 that he would not meet them at a bar approximately sixty-eight miles away. A clearly intoxicated Megee accepted the bet. As he was driving to meet the El Patio employees and receive the $200.00, Megee drove 97 mph into the back of a tractor trailer and was pronounced dead at the scene. Notably, no third-parties were injured in this collision.
On behalf of her son, Nancy Carol MeGee filed a wrongful death suit against El Patio for willfully and negligently overserving David, directly resulting in his death. While this cause of action would normally be barred under Oklahoma's dram shop law and the Court's holdings in Ohio Casualty, this case featured a novel fact - an inducing bet by employees of an alcohol vendor. Nancy MeGee argued that this fact warranted an exception to the general rule (i.e., an adult patron cannot recover damages from an alcohol vendor) because El Patio must be held responsible for incentivizing an intoxicated patron to drive.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court noted that the law does not recognize a common law duty to protect a voluntarily intoxicated adult from injuring himself. Although the facts alleged in Megee’s case were gut-wrenching, the Court held that El Patio had no statutory duty to protect David Megee from injury, and therefore, Nancy MeGee failed to identify a claim for which relief may be granted.
Four Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices were uncomfortable with the majority's decision, but understood they could not legislate from the bench and unconstitutionally impede upon the Oklahoma Legislature's power to make laws: "The disregard for the life of the victim in this case rises to a level of inhumanity that shocks the conscience of the Court. Cases such as these tempt us to right a wrong and impose liability where none existed before. Yet, as callous as the actions of the employees were, we should not deviate from our principles of judicial restraint to expand civil liability to an area not heretofore recognized by the common law or statutory mandate."
The dissenters posed important questions that are worth considering and expanding upon. Is the Legislature ethically compelled to amend Oklahoma's dram shop law to include a liability exception under the facts presented in MeGee? Would such an exception be exploited by future litigants? Should alcohol vendors in Oklahoma have a statutory duty to refrain from incentivizing intoxicated patrons from driving? If so, how do protect alcohol vendors from being exploited by patrons who do drive under the influence?
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