No Sale – No Liquor Liability in Tennessee

This is a liquor liability case against a bar in East Tennessee known as the Electric Cowboy.   After a night of drinking, Ashley Langworthy was driving her vehicle at a speed in the range of 83 to 94 mph when she lost control and struck a tree causing her vehicle to go airborne and crash in to the corner of a brick apartment killing the plaintiff’s 71 year old decedent.  Ms. Langworthy had to be extricated from the vehicle. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her BAC was still .18.  

Following discovery, the following facts about the events leading up to the crash were undisputed:

·        Langworthy and a friend had consumed two margaritas while eating dinner at Chili’s. They then purchased some Smirnoff Ice Coolers and Ms. Langworthy drank two of those in the parking lot of the Electric Cowboy.

·         Ms. Langworthy and her friend left locked in the car their purses containing their wallets and money.

·        Once inside the Electric Cowboy, Ms. Langworthy drank three shots of tequila – all of which were purchased by a male friend and delivered to her by a male friend.

·        At no point during the evening did Ms. Langworthy order a drink from an employee of Electric Cowboy.

·        Likewise, at no point during the evening did an Electric Cowboy employee sell or deliver an alcoholic drink directly to Ms. Langworthy.  

Based on the above, the trial court granted Electric Cowboy’s motion for summary judgment concluding Electric Cowboy had not “sold” alcoholic beverages to Ms. Langworthy, which is a necessary predicate to a finding of liability pursuant to T.C.A. 57-10-102. On appeal, the plaintiff challenged this finding and also alleged the trial court erred by failing to allow additional discovery.

The Tennessee Legislature has made it quite clear that individuals who merely “furnish” alcohol as opposed to selling it are not liable for any injuries inflicted by the intoxicated person even if the damage was foreseeable. And, sellers are only liable if they sell to a minor or to an “obviously intoxicated person and the sale was a proximate cause of the injuries suffered by the third party.” In this case, it was undisputed that Ms. Langworthy did not order a drink from an Electric Cowboy employee, did not have drink delivered to her by an Electric Cowboy employee and did not pay for a drink at Electric Cowboy. As such, there was no sale to Ms. Langworthy and so the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

On the second issue of failing to permit additional discovery, the Court of Appeals concluded the additional discovery did not relate to the issue of whether a sale had occurred. Thus, even if the additional discovery had been allowed, it would not have altered the outcome.

This is an example of some good lawyering by the defense. By obtaining very specific affidavits from Ms. Langworthy and her drinking companion, Electric Cowboy was able to definitively establish the lack of an actual sale as statutorily required for a finding of liability.   

The case is Heather Widner, Administratrix of the Estate of Glenn Edward Smith v. Chattanooga Entertainment, Inc. d/b/a Electric Cowboy, E2013-00192-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2014).

For more information about liquor liability litigation in Tennessee (also known as Tennessee dram shop litigation) click on the link.