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Frederick W. Voss v. Kristoffe J. Tranquilino

June 1, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at Per curiam.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Frederick W. Voss v. Kristoffe J. Tranquilino, et al.


(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in the opinion below.)

Argued March 14, 2011

Decided June 1, 2011


The Court considers whether an individual who was convicted of or pled guilty to driving while intoxicated (DWI) in connection with a motor vehicle accident is barred from pursuing a dram shop claim against a liquor licensee that, prior to the accident, allegedly served the visibly-intoxicated driver alcoholic beverages.

On November 9, 2006, plaintiff Frederick Voss was injured when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle operated by defendant Kristoffe Tranquilino and owned by defendant Jaime Tranquilino. Voss alleged that prior to the accident he was a patron at Tiffany's Restaurant and was negligently served alcoholic beverages that contributed to the accident and caused his injuries. Voss's blood alcohol content after the accident was .196, nearly two and one-half times the legal limit of .08 percent. Voss was charged with DWI and subsequently pled guilty.

Voss sued Tiffany's. Tiffany's moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting the bar to litigation contained in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), which states that a driver who is convicted of or pleads guilty to DWI in connection with an accident "shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or non-economic loss sustained as a result of the accident." The trial court denied the motion.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision. 413 N.J. Super. 82 (2010). The panel explained that the Dram Shop Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:22A-1 to -7, provides the exclusive civil remedy for injuries resulting from the negligent service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person by a liquor licensee. The panel then reviewed the findings and declarations of the Dram Shop Act, in which the Legislature explained its intention to (1) make liability coverage for liquor licensees more available and affordable by defining the limits of the civil liability of beverage servers; (2) encourage the use of risk reduction techniques by liquor licensees; and (3) permit a person who sustains damages as a result of negligent service to sue. The panel also reviewed the legislative history of the Dram Shop Act, noting in part that the original bill contemplated that a driver who was intoxicated, and passengers who knew the driver was intoxicated, would be prohibited from suing the licensed server. However, those provisions ultimately were stricken from the bill because they were deemed too onerous to victims of negligence and would have created a disincentive to liquor establishments to refrain from serving visibly intoxicated patrons.

Turning next to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), which was adopted several years after the Dram Shop Act, the panel explained that the purpose of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was to bring down automobile insurance premiums. The panel noted also that the provision's legislative history does not mention a plan to reduce liquor liability insurance premiums or to in any way affect dram shop claims. For those reasons, the panel held that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) does not bar a dram shop claim because (1) the purpose of the statute is to reduce automobile insurance premiums and its scope should be limited to losses that are subject to coverage under Title 39; (2) an interpretation barring dram shop claims would unjustifiably constitute repeal by implication of a portion of the Dram Shop Act; and (3) immunizing liquor licensees from liability in such circumstances would be inimical to the State's policy of curbing drunk driving.

The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. 202 N.J. 343 (2010).

HELD: The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Lisa's opinion.

1. Unless there is clear and compelling evidence of legislative intent, there is a strong presumption against repealing statutory provisions by implication. Here, it is far from clear that by adopting N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the Legislature meant to engage in an implied repeal of the contrary provisions and policy set forth in the Dram Shop Act. The Legislature's overriding objection when enacting the legislation that contained N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was to effect automobile insurance reform, and there is no evidence that the specific bar to litigation set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) was intended to have impact beyond the motor vehicle accident and insurance setting that Title 39 addresses. (pp. 2)

2. Furthermore, the bar to litigation in N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) can coexist with the Dram Shop Act's deterrence and liability-imposing principles. An intoxicated person is deterred from driving drunk by losing the right to sue under Title 39 for insurance coverage for his injuries. On the other hand, permitting an injured drunk driver to file an action against a liquor establishment and its servers for serving a visibly intoxicated patron similarly advances the goal of deterring drunk driving. In allowing the latter form of action to proceed, rather than barring it by N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), the application of established principles of comparative negligence will apportion properly the responsibility for damages as between dram shop parties and the injured driver. (pp. 2-3)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, joined by JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO, maintains that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) bars Voss's claim against Tiffany's Restaurant, and the Court has a duty to give that language its proper effect. Referring to the rules of statutory construction, he notes that a court may not rewrite a clearly expressed, unambiguous statute that has a rational basis and purpose, and he asserts that the Court has rewritten such a statute in this case under the dubious assumption that the Legislature did not mean what it said.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, HOENS, and JUDGE STERN (temporarily assigned) join in the Court's PER CURIAM opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, ...

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