In Okeechobee Aerie v. Wilde, Nos. 4D14-2770 and 4D14-2771, the court of appeals reviewed an appeal stemming from an $11 million verdict awarded to a motorcyclist injured by a drunk driver. The driver had recently left a social club bar that served him alcohol and contributed to his heavy inebriation. The driver’s blood alcohol content was .26 at the time of the accident, and the testimony of servers during the trial indicated that they knew he was an alcoholic. The injured motorcyclist and his wife filed suit against the bar that sold him alcohol. After the trial concluded in their favor, the social club bar appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in several ways. The appellate court agreed, remanding the case back for a new trial.
The social club bar disagreed with the court’s determination to allow evidence and a jury instruction regarding Florida’s Responsible Vendor Act. The injured motorcyclist and his wife claimed that the Act created two causes of action. The bar claimed it created only one cause of action. The appellate court pointed out that it actually eliminates a cause of action, shielding a person or vendor that serves alcoholic beverages from suit in some situations when the right to bring a claim might otherwise exist. An exception does exist, however, if the beverages were sold negligently to a habitual alcoholic. The court felt in this case that it was not enough to show that a drinking establishment knowingly served a habitual alcoholic. The court explained that the injured person must show that the establishment owed a legal duty to the injured person and that a breach occurred. Evidence of common sense, the bar’s failure to adequately train its staff, and societal standards were acceptable, but evidence of the Act went a step too far.
This ruling affected the next issue of whether or not the court erred by allowing evidence of a prior case in which a woman was killed by a different drunk driver who was served by the same establishment. This evidence was submitted solely on the basis that the bar was aware of the statute and its responsibilities under it. Since the introduction of the Act was deemed unacceptable, the evidence of the prior accident was also ruled inadmissible.