On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
J.h. Coleman, Dreier and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
Plaintiff, Seung Gyun Choi, appeals from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in this dram-shop case. Choi was a passenger in a car driven by his manager, Myung Chung. Choi, Chung, and a co-worker, Peter Lee, had gone to the Kiku Restaurant in Fort Lee to celebrate plaintiff's successful completion of his first week at work. According to plaintiff,*fn1 such a celebration, sponsored by one's immediate superior, is a Korean tradition. All became highly intoxicated. Plaintiff contends that the three men consumed two five-ounce carafes of saki and then continued to drink saki served from tea kettles, each kettle the equivalent of five carafes. Lee became ill from the quantity of saki consumed, but plaintiff and Chung continued to drink. The amount consumed and the method of service were disputed by a bartender from the restaurant, but the jury's express findings supported plaintiff's testimony.
Plaintiff contended that when it was time to leave the restaurant he had no other way of getting home but to accompany Chung. Furthermore, not to have done so would have been an insult. In fact, when they left the restaurant, Chung did not even intend to go straight home, but rather to drink at another establishment. Plaintiff testified that Chung was staggeringly drunk when they left the restaurant and had to be helped to his car. Predictably, there was an accident; plaintiff was injured when Chung's vehicle ran into the back of a truck.
Unfortunately, Chung has left the area and did not testify. His insurance carrier settled for the policy limits of $15,000.*fn2 The jury specifically found that both plaintiff and Chung were served alcohol while they were visibly intoxicated, that the negligence of plaintiff, Chung and the restaurant contributed to plaintiff's injuries, and that plaintiff suffered $75,000 in damages. The jury allocated liability: 10% to the restaurant, 80% to Chung and 10% to plaintiff.
On this appeal, plaintiff claims that the judge erred in permitting the issue of Chung's contributory negligence to go to the jury; any settlement by plaintiff with Chung did not reduce his recovery against the restaurant, except by a pro tanto $15,000 offset; and the judge erred by permitting the jury to consider plaintiff's comparative negligence.
The trial judge correctly charged that a driver is not absolved from responsibility by voluntary intoxication. ( Compare N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b, which even extends this principle to criminally reckless conduct). Furthermore, she charged that the Kiku Restaurant could be responsible for serving Chung when he was visibly intoxicated, and that the restaurant would be deemed negligent if it served alcoholic beverages under such circumstances. See Rappaport v. Nichols, 31 N.J. 188, 156 A.2d 1 (1959), and its progeny. Likewise, plaintiff himself could be responsible for the consequences of the accident, even as a passenger, if he failed to exercise reasonable care for his own safety, and that a factor affecting such decision would be whether plaintiff voluntarily rode in an automobile operated by a person under the influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor, after the plaintiff knew or should have known of the driver's condition. See Buckley v. Estate of Pirolo, 101 N.J. 68, 500 A.2d 703 (1985). All of these principles were described to the jury.
In her charge, however, the judge failed to apprise the jury of the possibly controlling factor explained by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Estate of Pirolo, 101 N.J. at 79-80, 500 A.2d 703, namely, that an intoxicated driver's or passenger's responsibility is to be assessed in order to determine whether and to what extent such party's appreciation of the risk was still effective, notwithstanding some level of inebriation. The fact-finder must assess the act of a patron-passenger accompanying an intoxicated driver to determine whether, and to what extent the passenger's rational decision-making ability has been impaired by intoxication. To this extent, Buckley modified the earlier cases of Soronen v. Olde Milford Inn, Inc., 46 N.J. 582, 218 A.2d 630 (1966), and Aliulis v. Tunnel Hill Corp., 59 N.J. 508, 284 A.2d 180 (1971).
We have learned from Soronen and Aliulis that a dram-shop (here a restaurant)*fn3 is directly responsible for the consequences of the accident if it causes its customer to fail to control his own actions or appreciate the risks surrounding his conduct. Rappaport and its progeny established the restaurant's liability for the intoxicated driver's actions, i.e., the restaurant is liable if it has set the intoxicated driver on the road in a condition where the driver could injure another. Buckley does no more than fine-tune this analysis by requiring an inquiry into the particular circumstances to see whether an injured patron-passenger will bear some retained responsibility.
We have considered how the Buckley factor and the general principles of liability stated by the Appellate Division in Buckley, see 190 N.J. Super. 491, 464 A.2d 1136 (App.Div.1983), could be applied here and elsewhere when multiple claims involve a driver's and a restaurant's (or other ...