Selling Gas to a Drunk

There has been a lot of talk about the decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court in the case of West v. East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co.; even the Tennessesan has weighed in with an editorial.

The Court held that convenience store employees owe a duty of reasonable care to persons on the roadways when the employees sell gasoline to an obviously intoxicated person and / or assist the driver in pummping gas into his vehicle.

An employee of a c-store refused to sell Tarver beer because he was too intoxicated. Then, some level of physical assistance was given to Tarver to purchase $3.00 worth of gasoline for his vehicle. Tarver left the seen, drove 2.8 miles, and hit the plaintiffs’ vehicle head on, causing both plaintiffs’ serious injuries.

Plaintiff’s expert testified that, without the $3.00 worth of fuel purchased at the defendant’s store, Tarver’s vehicle would have run out of gas before coming into contact with the Plaintiffs.

The Tennessee Supreme Court held that there is a jury issue on the issue of negligence and negligent entrustment. Drunk drivers kill and injure, and the Court held that if the clerk knew (or reasonably should have known) the driver was intoxicated a jury could hold the defendant liable.

This decision makes perfect sense to me. We live in a world with other people. We know the harm that drunk drivers can cause? Why in heaven’s name would you sell gas to someone who was too intoxicated to buy beer?

This fact situation is a once-in-a-million year occurrence. The odds of cause in fact being present are less. But that does not make this opinion wrong. Indeed, it shows the beauty of the flexability of the common law.