Holding a liquor store responsible for selling an intoxicated person liquor, which ends in that person driving drunk and killing or injuring someone is not a new concept.
However, the state of New Mexico has come up with a new idea in its fight against driving under the influence: Hold a business responsible if it sells an intoxicated person gasoline.
That’s right, a convenience store owner or gas station owner could find themselves on the wrong side of the law if they allow an intoxicated person to purchase gas. New Mexico isn’t the only state to do this, however. Tennessee also applies the law in such a way to create a duty of care for businesses to refrain from supplying drunk drivers with fuel because of the risk of driving while under the influence.
The New Mexico Supreme Court, on Monday, rendered the decision in a “response to a request from a federal appeals court to resolve a question of state law concerning the potential liability of a retailer that sold gasoline to an intoxicated river in 2011,” according to a KUNM report. “After refueling and returning to the highway, that driver crossed the center line and crashed into an oncoming vehicle, killing a person.”
According to the report, under the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, the owners of potentially dangerous goods are responsible for supplying those goods to people who are competent enough to use them safely.
It’s understandable when alcohol sales are involved, but gasoline? It seems a little far-fetched. The court majority defended its decision, however. They compared selling gas to allowing a drunk person to borrow or drive a car that belongs to someone else.
“Gasoline is required to operate most vehicles today,” the report said. “Providing gasoline to an intoxicated driver is like providing car keys to an intoxicated driver.”
New Mexico courts have, in past decisions, recognized that a vehicle owner who entrusts a person under the influence with driving the vehicle, may be liable for any injuries caused to another as the result of drunk driving.
“While New Mexico has no law that would prohibit the sale of gasoline to intoxicated drivers, the court’s majority wrote that the duty not to sell gasoline to someone who is drunk is consistent with liability for giving that person alcohol or a vehicle,” the KUNM report said.
While trying to reach a decision, the court reviewed other principles of law, past legal precedents and statutes. Now-retired justice Barbara Vigil, in her dissenting opinion, wrote the sale or serving of alcohol is regulated and the laws don’t “warrant extending liability for drunken driving to retail sales of nonalcoholic goods.”
She also pointed out that it’s unclear how the sale of gasoline would be regulated when it’s being sold to an intoxicated person because not everyone goes inside a gas station or a convenience store to pay for gas, instead opting to pay at the pump.
Vigil makes an excellent point. We understand how regulating this would be difficult, but New Mexico ranks high when it comes to alcohol-involved crashes. In 2019, they reported a total of 48,124 crashes, of which 2,237 were alcohol related and 149 were fatal and involved alcohol, according to a New Mexico Department of Transportation report. It’s not surprising they’re taking drastic measures to reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, but this might not be the best method.
Could other states follow, as a means to reduce driving while intoxicated incidents and could it extend to DUI across the board, not just alcohol? It will be interesting to see how businesses react to this decision and how it’s regulated.