RI Supreme Court: Driver Not Liable for Injuries Caused by Intoxicated Passenger Who Subsequently Drives His Own Car

The Rhode Island Supreme Court finds that an adult driver does not have a duty to protect third parties from the torts of a clearly intoxicated passenger he has agreed to transport by preventing that passenger from subsequently driving his own car. Gushlaw v. Milner, Rhode Island Supreme Court No. 2009-376

Joseph Clukey, 18, invited his friend Matt Milner, 20, to a private party in Warwick, RI. As agreed, they met at a convenience store where Mr. Milner left his car. The two men had come to a similar arrangement in the past as Mr. Milner seldom drove when they were out drinking. The two men drove to the party after purchasing an 18-pack of beer. Both men drank heavily at the party and both were intoxicated. Mr. Milner’s behavior was such that the hostess expressed concern about him driving. Mr. Clukey reassured her that he would be doing the driving that evening. The two men left the party and attended another party just a few blocks from Mr. Milner’s home.  Mr. Milner was asked to leave this party due to his disruptive behavior and Mr. Clukey, rather than taking him home, drove back to the convenience store so Mr. Milner could pick up his car. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Milner collided with a car driven by Eldrick Johnson, a crash that proved fatal to both parties. Mr. Milner’s blood alcohol analysis established that he had in excess of twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system at the time of the accident.

The plaintiffs’ alleged that Mr. Clukey breached a duty of reasonable care owed to anyone using the public roads by reuniting Mr. Milner with his car when he knew or should have known that Mr. Milner would then drive while intoxicated.  Mr. Clukey prevailed on summary judgment arguing that there was no such duty recognized by Rhode Island’s statutory and common law. The plaintiffs’ appealed claiming that the Court could find such a duty under either the ad hoc approach established in Banks v. Bowen’s Landing Corp., 522 A.2d 1222 (R.I. 1987) or via Mr. Clukey’s alleged voluntary assumption of the risk. 

While recognizing that no clear cut formula existed to determine the existence of a duty, the Rhode Island Supreme Court analyzed the case in light of its well developed jurisprudence on social host liability. Relying heavily on its decision in Santana v. Rainbow Cleaners, 969 A.2d 653 (R.I. 2009), the Court summed up its social host decisions by stating that there is generally no duty to control the conduct of a third party to prevent injury to another person unless there is a special relationship with either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or with the intended victim of the conduct. The Court concluded that Mr. Clukey did not have a special relationship with either Mr. Milner or Mr. Johnson.

In analyzing its prior social host cases, the Court found that special relationships most often arose when alcoholic beverages were supplied by the defendant and/or consumed on the defendant’s property. In tins case, Mr. Clukey, an underage drinker himself, neither supplied Mr. Milner with alcohol nor served him alcohol on premises he controlled. Thus, Mr. Clukey did not have the ability to regulate Mr. Milner’s drinking or to control his actions once he brought Mr. Milner back to his car. Without this requisite control, no special relationship existed between Mr. Clukey and Mr. Milner sufficient to impose a duty on Mr. Clukey.[1] In analyzing any duty Mr. Clukey had to Mr. Johnson, the Court reviewed Restatement (Second) of Torts § 315 and § 320 and found special relationships giving rise to a duty to protect attached to common carriers, innkeepers, land owners, legal or voluntary custodians, and officials with custodial powers. As Mr. Clukey did not fit into any of these categories, the Court concluded that he did not owe a duty of care to Mr. Johnson. 

Having relied on the Restatement to reach this conclusion, the Court explicitly rejected the argument that, under Restatement (Second) § 323 and § 324, Mr. Clukey assumed a duty of care when he gratuitously agreed to drive Mr. Milner that evening. The Court noted that it had never explicitly adopted those sections of the Restatement and had previously found them “extremely relaxed” in that they allowed for a recovery when a defendant’s negligence increased the risk in any degree. See Contois v. Town of West Warwick,  863 A.2d 1019, 1024 n. 7 (R.I. 2004). It declined to apply such relaxed standards to this case, particularly as Mr. Clukey successfully performed the obligations he had undertaken, i.e. to drive Mr. Milner around that evening and return him to his car when their evening was over. 

The Court acknowledged that the fatal accident was foreseeable, but stressed that the mere fact that an event was foreseeable did not give rise to a duty to take measures to prevent it. See Ferreira v. Strack, 652 A.2d 965 (R.I. 1995). The Court assessed foreseeability along with such other factors as the closeness of the connection between the alleged negligence and the fatal accident, the extent of the burden imposed on the public, how well that burden could be defined and understood by the public and whether a judicial opinion would create de facto regulations best left to legislative consideration. In balancing these factors, the Court declined to impose a duty on Mr. Clukey on the facts of this case.

[1]The Court found that Mr. Clukey did not fit its definition of a designated driver because he had not agreed not to drink alcohol himself on the night in question. It opined that to have found that Mr. Clukey owed a duty in this case would have extended the duties of a designated driver to an amorphous section of the public. This, the Court concluded, was impractical.

 

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