Justices Back Bar’s Arguments in Accident Case

Justices Back Bar’s Arguments in Accident Case

By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ruling that could help limit the liability of a Tallahassee bar in a case involving an 18-year-old woman who suffered catastrophic injuries when she was hit by a pickup truck in 2014.

Justices, in a 6-1 opinion, sided with operators of Potbelly’s, a bar near the Florida State University campus, in the lawsuit filed by a guardian for Jacquelyn Faircloth.

Faircloth was injured when she was hit by a pickup truck while crossing a street about 2 a.m., according to court records. The driver of the truck, 20-year-old Devon Dwyer, had been drinking at Potbelly’s, while Faircloth had been drinking at another establishment, Cantina 101.

Dwyer was an employee of Potbelly’s, which knew he was underage, according to the Supreme Court opinion. He and Faircloth were intoxicated.

The lawsuit was filed against owners of both businesses, alleging that they illegally served alcohol to underage people and caused the accident. A circuit judge issued a default judgment against Cantina 101 for failing to respond and later entered a $28.6 million judgment jointly and severally against the bars, which meant both could be legally responsible for paying all the damages.

But in an appeal, the owners of Potbelly’s argued that the circuit judge had improperly rejected what is known as a “comparative fault” defense, which could lead to determining a share of fault — and potentially reduce Potbelly’s liability. 

A panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2022 agreed, saying the case involved a question of negligence, which would allow for comparative fault. The Supreme Court upheld that decision Thursday, in part addressing what it described as a “willfulness” requirement in state law.

“Here, the guardianship did not allege that Potbelly’s intended harm to someone in Faircloth’s position or that the bar knew such harm was substantially certain to occur,” said the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and joined by Justices Charles Canady, John Couriel, Jamie Grosshans, Renatha Francis and Meredith Sasso. “Potbelly’s’ willfulness flowed from its knowledge of Dwyer’s age — nothing more.”

The opinion added, “In other words, Potbelly’s admitted to knowingly creating an unreasonable risk of harm. That is negligence, not an intentional tort.”

But Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, saying he “fundamentally” disagreed with the conclusion that the issues in the case should be treated as negligence.

“The egregious facts of this case make it especially unsuited for the majority’s holding,” Labarga wrote. “This is not a case where a store clerk failed to check a customer’s identification and unwittingly sold alcohol to an underage person. Here, Potbelly’s repeatedly, time and again over a period of hours, furnished beer and liquor to a person who was actually employed by Potbelly’s and known to be underage. That simply cannot be considered negligent misconduct. It was intentional, and Potbelly’s should not be allowed to benefit from the comparative fault statute to lessen its liability.”

The case drew attention from Florida State University and the University Florida, which backed the arguments of Faircloth’s guardian. In a brief filed last year, the universities said a “critical challenge is addressing alcohol-related injuries and abuse, including the unlawful selling or furnishing of alcohol to a person who is not of lawful drinking age, particularly by bars and restaurants surrounding the universities. FSU and UF have an interest in the deterrence of this activity.”

The Supreme Court said it was not taking a position about how fault should be allocated among the bars, Dwyer and Faircloth.

One Response to "Justices Back Bar’s Arguments in Accident Case"

  1. Dwyer and Faircloth knew they would be impaired if they drank, possibly even get Drunk. One could assume that they both had been Drunk before that day and knew how they would be when Drunk. Therefore, they should be held at 75% at Fault.

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