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Supreme Court rules for bar owners

Family filed suit following DUI deaths

State law protects tavern owners from lawsuits based on the actions of their intoxicated customers, said a Wyoming Supreme Court’s split decision last month.

The court upheld District Court Judge Steven Cranfill’s September 2010 dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit against Doug and Denny Freier, owners of the Stockman’s Bar and Lounge in Basin and the Smokehouse Saloon in Greybull.

The Freiers were out of town and unavailable to comment.

In 2008, John and Carol Munkberg were killed when a van driven by Randall LaBrie of Malta, Mont., who had a blood alcohol level of 0.16, struck their car west of Greybull.

The 2009 suit filed by Paul Baessler, son of Carol Munkberg, and Karen Schmid, daughter of John Munkberg, was brought against the tavern owners, claiming they served LaBrie alcohol despite his obvious intoxication.

The court decision cited Wyoming statute 12-8-301(a): “No person who has legally provided alcoholic liquor or malt beverage to any other person is liable for damages caused by the intoxication of the other person.”

“The point is that the Legislature, a policy-making branch of government, chose not to place that duty on the alcohol provider,” said the written court decision.

Chief Justice Marilyn S. Kite and Justice William Hill did file a dissenting opinion, saying state statute does not preempt cities and towns from enacting ordinances to reduce damages caused by intoxicated individuals.

“I also disagree that the Legislature has preempted the field so as to preclude cities and towns from enacting ordinances intended to reduce damages caused by excessive consumption of alcohol in their communities,” wrote Kite in the decision. “Were I writing the majority opinion, I would hold that (Wyoming Statute) 12-8-301(a) means what it says — no person who legally provides alcohol to another person is liable for damages caused by that person’s intoxication. I would further hold, however, that under (Wyoming Statute) 12-8-301(a) a person who provides alcohol to another person in violation of the law, including a municipal ordinance, may be liable for such damages.”  

For Baessler, the question is, who is responsible when an intoxicated individual’s judgment is impaired?

“What will it take to change the minds and remove the liquor lobby from the state?” Baessler asked Sept. 6. “Not only for the citizens, but the tourists that do not know that this law is absent and (that they) are at risk on the roads.”

“Why would someone with impaired judgment, especially over the legal limit, be able to decide if they have had too much?” Baessler asked. “Let a third party person, who is sober, assist in making that call. Most states, with larger populations and establishments, have this law already.”

As he had in the past, Baessler said he will continue to push for legislation to save lives.

“To say it is impossible is a cop out,” Baessler said. 

One of the Munkberg’s grandchildren got married last weekend. “Wish my parents were here to see it,” Baessler said.

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7 comments

  • posted by Paul Baessler

    September 22, 2011 6:33 pm

    TH, great job seeing that I was the one in the article and the post, I hope you would be smart enough to know that I have a police report with full timeline of events and tox report. No other drugs and the only place they consumed was at the bars. Additionally, the bar tender requested to cut them off and the bar owner refused. One guy was even passed out at the bar. I do believe the laws need to be changed. Two ways of making this happen, lobby the government (which I have done and continue to do) and second, challenge the law through the court system. This is a big enough problem, I decided to front my own money to do so. It's about saving lives and allowing those who died to have a voice. I am not against drinking or having a good time, we just need to do it responsible and as human beings, try to protect people, if it is us drinking or others. The people that keep serving when it is out of control are the ones after the money, at the expense of human lives. Thank you for reading

  • posted by Russell Schaller

    September 21, 2011 11:49 am

    When laws are either inadequate or ineffective they need to be changed either by legislative process or by suing to get the case to the supreme court. Why did we feel that the law was not adequate or effective? If Randall had gotten drunk in your house or he was drunk when a liquor store sold him more alcohol, you or the liquor store owner would have been held responsible by your state law. But, because he got drunk in a bar the bar server is not responsible. Why, because your state has a special exemption for bars and bar owners. Why, probably lobbyists got to your legislature. It's common and happens everywhere. In response to personal responsibility. It wasn't just my sister and her husband that were killed in that crash, two of Randall's friends were in his car and they died also. Why, because he was too drunk to drive and to drunk to make a responsible decision not to. What is the server to do if the person insists on driving, in my state they are to call 911 for an arrest. Too many lives lost, three of whom I didn't even know.

  • posted by TH

    September 19, 2011 4:23 pm

    Listen PJB...I am sorry for your loss. It IS horrendous! I understand your motive to push for a change in the law. But bear in mind..it is the law for a reason. What's next? What if an obese person has a heart attack driving down the highway and collides with somebody else after just engorging themselves with cheeseburgers and fries at McDonald's...you gonna sue the teenage kid and McDonald's?? Absurd. You are the one that shouldn't be so closed minded...have you ever heard of personal responsibility? Instead of trying to make someone else liable...let's try to push for tougher DUI laws to keep these idiots behind bars and off highways! Personal responsibility!!!

  • posted by JAB

    September 18, 2011 9:40 am

    Bars and their employees should take T.I.P.S classes and understand their role in taking care of their customers and not over serving them and finding them a ride home. HOWEVER, there does come a point where customers REFUSE rides home, what are they spposed to do? Kidnap the person? And who's to say that this particular person didn't leave the bar, go home or to a friends house and drink an already bought supply to the point of 0.16.

  • posted by PJB

    September 17, 2011 9:16 pm

    Have you ever thought that it is not about money, but rather making a change for the better to protect our neighbors, friends and family? Being drunk impairs your decision making process, we all know that. Why does it make sense to allow those who are impaired, to make the choice of when they had too much, specially when it is obvious to others. If this was your family, would you still feel this way? Use your head and stop thinking it is all about money, there are many other things in life worth more than money. Do not be so close minded

  • posted by TH

    September 15, 2011 3:08 pm

    It truly is a sad situation. Innocent people were killed by an others negligence. However, these people knew they couldn't get any money from the drunk idiot...so unfortunately they went for money and tried to get it from the bar owners. Way to go Wyoming Supreme Court. Agree with CJ...GREAT to see common sense for a change.

  • posted by cj

    September 15, 2011 10:09 am

    While I am sorry for their loss of family members at the hands of a drunk idiot, this only makes good sense. Making bars responsible for the action of patrons would be like holding the Game & Fish Dept. liable for hitting a deer. I am glad to see some common sense prevail for a change.

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