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Quinnett v. Newman

Supreme Court of Connecticut

January 2, 1990

Phillip E. QUINNETT, Administrator (ESTATE OF Benjamin L. QUINNETT)
Virginia NEWMAN, et al.

Argued Oct. 6, 1989.

F. Timothy McNamara, for appellant (plaintiff).

Thomas J. Keramidas, for appellees (defendant Brett Kerr, et al.).


[213 Conn. 344] COVELLO, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff, Phillip E. Quinnett, as administrator of the estate of his five year old son, Benjamin L. Quinnett, brought this action seeking damages for the wrongful death of his son. The dispositive issue is whether a common law cause of action in negligence or public nuisance exists against a commercial vendor who sells intoxicating liquor to an adult who thereafter,

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by reason of his intoxication, injures another. We conclude that neither a common law negligence action nor a public nuisance action against the vendor exists under such circumstances, the legislature having filled this field through the enactment of General Statutes § 30-102. Therefore, we find no error.

The jury might reasonably have found that on December 1, 1983, at approximately 5:15 p.m., Gary Mastrobattisto stopped at Gindee's bar in New Haven, an establishment operated by the defendants Virginia Newman and Gindee's Corporation, where he remained for two to three hours. During that time, Mastrobattisto consumed three shots of tequila and six twelve ounce bottles of beer. He thereafter drove to Pickles bar in Branford, an establishment operated by the defendants Brett Kerr and Pacarrie, Inc. (defendants), where he remained for an additional two to three hours. While there, Mastrobattisto drank three more shots of tequila and six more twelve ounce bottles of beer. Shortly after leaving Pickles bar, Mastrobattisto drove his vehicle across the highway into the lane for oncoming[213 Conn. 345] traffic and struck the car carrying the plaintiff's decedent, causing the injuries that thereafter led to his death.

The suit involving Gindee's bar was resolved by stipulated judgment. The case involving Pickles bar was thereafter submitted to the jury solely on the issues of wanton and reckless misconduct. See Kowal v. Hofher, 181 Conn. 355, 359-62, 436 A.2d 1 (1980). The trial court, J. Flanagan, J., directed the jury to render a verdict for the defendants on the remaining counts of the complaint, concluding that, as a matter of law, there is no cause of action based upon negligence or public nuisance in selling alcohol to an adult who thereafter injures another by reason of his intoxication. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on the recklessness count and as directed by the court on the remaining counts. The trial court denied the plaintiff's motion to set aside the verdicts on counts one, two, three and four and thereafter rendered judgment for the defendants. The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court. We then transferred the appeal to ourselves pursuant to Practice Book § 4023.

On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court erred: (1) in failing to charge the jury as requested on the issues of negligence and public nuisance; (2) in directing a verdict in favor of the defendants on those counts that alleged negligence and a public nuisance; and (3) in denying his motion to set aside the verdicts. We find no error.

At common law there is no cause of action based upon negligence in selling alcohol to adults who are known to be intoxicated. "While such acts may constitute the breach of a duty owed to others, the cause of action in a variety of factual settings has uniformly failed for the reason that the subsequent injury has been held to have been proximately caused by the intervening act [213 Conn. 346] of the immoderate consumer whose voluntary and imprudent consumption of the beverage brings about intoxication and the subsequent injury. Boehm v. Kish, 201 Conn. 385, 389, 517 A.2d 624 (1986); Kowal v. Hofher, [supra, 181 Conn. at 357-58, 436 A.2d 1]; Slicer v. Quigley, 180 Conn. 252, 255-56, 429 A.2d 855 (1980); Nelson v. Steffens, 170 Conn. 356, 358-59, 365 A.2d 1174 (1976); Moore v. Bunk, 154 Conn. 644, 647, 228 A.2d 510 (1967); Nolan v. Morelli, 154 Conn. 432, 436, 226 A.2d 383 (1967)." Ely v. Murphy, 207 Conn. 88, 92-93, 540 A.2d 54 (1988).

In Ely v. Murphy, supra, we recognized a limited exception to this long-standing proposition and held that the consumption of alcohol by a minor did not "constitute the intervening act necessary to break the chain of proximate causation and does not, as a matter of law, insulate one who provides alcohol to minors from liability for ensuing injury." Id. at 95, 540 A.2d 54. The basis of this holding lay in the fact that minors, by reason of their youth, lacked the legal capacity "voluntarily" to consume alcohol and, therefore, the fact that they did so, did not, as a matter of law, break any chain of proximate causation that might otherwise exist. Id.

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The plaintiff argues, however, that so long as the defendant sellers' conduct was a substantial factor in producing the plaintiff's injury, it becomes a question of fact in all events as to whether the subsequent consumption of alcohol breaks the chain of proximate causation. See, e.g., Merhi v. Becker, 164 Conn. 516, 521, 325 A.2d 270 (1973); Miranti v. Brookside Shopping Center, Inc., 159 Conn. 24, 29-30, 266 A.2d 370 (1969). "However, proximate causation is [also] a matter of public policy and therefore subject to the changing attitudes and needs of society. [W. Prosser, Torts (4th Ed.1971), pp. 206, 244-45.]" Vance v. United States, 355 F.Supp. 756, 761 (D.Alaska 1973). Despite the assertions made by the minority in their dissenting opinions, [213 Conn. 347] the issue is not whether one disapproves of irresponsible drinking and its too often tragic results on the highways and roadways of our state, but rather, whether this court can intrude where the legislature has so clearly chosen to act. To the extent that the General Assembly sees fit to articulate public policy through specific legislation, we are bound to honor the means by which it addresses the policy issue in question.

"In Connecticut, as far back as 1872, it came to be felt that the ... common-law rule [limiting the liability of purveyors of alcohol] was to some extent overly harsh and should be modified by statute.... The 1872 act gave a cause of action against a seller who sold intoxicating liquor to a person who thereby became intoxicated for 'any damage or injury to any other person, or to the property of another' done by the intoxicated person 'in consequence' of his intoxication. Thus, this act, in situations where it was applicable, displaced the common-law rule that the proximate cause of intoxication was not the furnishing of the liquor but its consumption." Nolan v. Morelli, supra, 154 Conn. at 437, 226 A.2d 383. The modern version of this so-called civil damage or dram shop act is General Statutes § 30-102. [1] Despite numerous amendments throughout its one hundred twenty-nine year history, the act's applicability remains essentially unchanged.

Unlike the social host-minor guest situation found in Ely v. Murphy, supra, which is not addressed in § 30-102, we are here confronted with a tavern seller-adult patron situation, the precise factual circumstance [213 Conn. 348] contemplated by § 30-102. This being the case, we defer to the legislative policy as it is ...

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