September 27, 2021

NM Supreme Court rules gas stations can be held liable for selling fuel to drunk drivers

People who are visibly intoxicated are typically not served alcohol. However, it may now be illegal to sell them gasoline as well.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that gas stations can be held liable for selling fuel to drunk drivers who cause accidents, the Washington Examiner reported. The court handed down its 3-1 decision on July 19.

The case was being heard from a federal appeals court that litigated a 2011 accident. A driver, whose blood alcohol level 0.176 which was double the state’s .08 legal limit — left the filling station and collided with oncoming traffic. It resulted in one fatality, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

“Providing gasoline to an intoxicated driver is like providing car keys to an intoxicated driver,” the judges wrote in their majority opinion. “Accordingly, liability under negligent entrustment for the sale of gasoline to an intoxicated driver is consistent with New Mexico law.”

The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Barbara Vigil who is now retired. She argued that “this sea change in the law could have far-reaching consequences for retail businesses.” The judge contended that while those who sell alcohol are subject to regulations and liability, that same level of care doesn’t extend to other purchases unrelated to alcoholic beverages.

This same argument was made by Doug Kantor, who serves as general counsel for the National Association of Convenience stores. The trade association representative called the ruling an “overreached to make a new rule in New Mexico” in an interview.

“There are clear laws about age restrictions,” Kantor pointed out. “You’ve got to make sure someone is old enough to sell them alcohol or tobacco. But store clerks who sell gas just aren’t in a position to police whether people have been drinking or not or whether their mental state is impaired or not.”

Personal responsibility has gone by the wayside in American life as it is. While it’s true that those who serve alcohol have a higher level of responsibility to not overserve, it isn’t clear all others who simply interact with intoxicated people should be on the hook as well.

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