Court: New Jersey Group Not Liable in Drunk-Driving Deaths

January 27, 2009

A New Jersey nonprofit group is not liable for providing alcohol at a party where four guests were later killed in a drunk-driving crash, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The court upheld a law that allows licensed alcohol servers to be held liable if visibly drunk patrons later get into an accident, even if the patrons pour their own drinks.

In the unanimous opinion published Thursday, the court determined that the Happy Hour Social and Athletic Club was not liable for the death of the four guests.

The Maple Shade group held its annual Pig Roast in August 2002 where a truck with beer kegs was provided; guests served themselves.

According to the opinion, John Kinnerman, a 34-year-old attendee, left with three other guests in his car to head to a bar. He lost control and hit a van, killing himself and the three guests.

Court records show Kinnerman’s blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the widow of one of the passengers tried to blame Happy Hour Social, among others, saying the nonprofit did not monitor the intoxicated man. But party witnesses said Kinnerman was not visibly drunk.

A trial court ruled against the widow, Diane Mazzacano, as did an appeals court.

The case “boiled down to one essential but disputed fact — whether Kinnerman was allowed to serve himself” while obviously drunk, Justice Barry Albin wrote for the Supreme Court. “No one who observed Kinnerman during the picnic was of the opinion that he met the definition of visibly intoxicated.”

Mazzacano’s attorney, Kenneth McPherson, said his client is “certainly disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s reasoning,” he said.

Club officials could not be reached for comment, but Bolan, the group’s attorney, said he was pleased with the outcome.

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