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ATLANTA -- In a strong 6-to-1 ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court found that the Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia can be held liable for a fatal crash that occurred after a driver purchased beer at the convenience store, according to an Associated Press report. The decision overturned a Court of Appeals summary judgment that had favored the store.
Court documents stated that Billy Grundell was noticeably intoxicated when he bought a 12-pack of beer from the store. Later, Grundell's blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit when he hit a van head-on, killing himself and five others.
The family of those injured sued Exprezit! Stores 98-Georgia under the dram shop act, according to an InsuranceJournal.com report. The act states that someone who sells, furnishes or serves alcohol to an intoxicated person of legal drinking age is not liable for any injury, death or damage that person causes because of their intoxication, but that if the purchaser is noticeably intoxicated, they may become liable.
In the past, the dram shop act has only applied to businesses such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs, where the alcohol is consumed on the premises. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the store on the basis that the beer was not sold for consumption on store premises. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and said "that would mean that a convenience store cannot be held liable for selling closed or packaged alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated adult under any set of circumstances. We cannot accept this interpretation of the statute."
Lawyers for the store argued that employees have no way of knowing whether a customer will drive soon after buying alcohol and cannot discern whether that customer is already intoxicated, since c-store customers don't drink alcohol on-site like they would at a bar, but the court found that employees do have an opportunity to observe how the customer arrived and therefore whether they will soon drive, and that they will be able to observe whether a customer appears noticeably intoxicated.
The ruling set a precedent that could greatly affect convenience stores and other retailers that sell packaged alcohol, but the court was careful to note that "each case must rise or fall on its own facts."
The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores said it already trains employees of the stores it represents not to sell alcohol to noticeably intoxicated customers.