Negligence - Can a gas station be liable for selling gas to an intoxicated individual who later causes an accident in Tennessee?

Posted on Dec 2 2013 9:56AM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Analysis:  Over eight years ago the Tennessee Supreme Court handed down the decision of West v. East Tennessee Pioneer Oil Co., 172 S.W.3rd 545 (Tenn. 2005).  This case set new precedent at that time and it is a good case to review because of the impact it can have on many negligence situations.  It primarily discussed and considered the foreseeability element in a negligence case.


In West, an individual who had been drinking alcohol on the night in question purchased gas from a convenience store gas station.  There were some disputed facts, however, it was plaintiff's contention that this individual was clearly intoxicated and the convenience store employees knew he was intoxicated when they sold him gas.  Additionally, an off-duty employee of the store actually assisted the intoxicated individual by pushing the correct buttons on the gas pump in order to activate the pump.  There was a dispute about whether all of these individuals knew the allegedly intoxicated individual was in fact intoxicated and whether or not he was the actual driver of the vehicle.  After the vehicle left the gas station, it struck another vehicle, causing severe injuries to the plaintiffs. 


The trial court dismissed the cause of action against the gas station.  The trial court basically found that under Tennessee law, the plaintiffs could not hold the convenience store liable under these circumstances.  On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed this decision and found that:


we conclude that a convenience store employee owes a duty of reasonable care to persons on the roadways, including the plaintiffs, not to sell gasoline to a person whom the employee knows (or reasonably ought to know) to be intoxicated and to be the driver of the motor vehicle. Similarly, a convenience store employee also owes a duty of reasonable care not to assist in providing gasoline (in this case pumping the gasoline) to a person whom the employee knows (or reasonably ought to know) to be intoxicated and to be the driver of the motor vehicle. We stress that because [f]oreseeability is the test of negligence the convenience store employee must know that the individual is intoxicated and that the individual is the driver of the vehicle before a duty arises. It is a question of fact for a jury as to what the employee knew with respect to the individual's intoxication and status as driver.


Id. at 552.  As a result, if a convenience store employee provides gas to an intoxicated individual who is also a driver of a vehicle, then if an accident occurs that is reasonably tied to the sale of the gasoline, the gas station can be found responsible for the accident under Tennessee law.  Further, even if an employee was not aware that the purchaser of gasoline was intoxicated at the time the gasoline was sold, if the employee later assists the intoxicated individual in pumping gasoline, then the gas station is potentially responsible for that act. 


The Tennessee Supreme Court, importantly, clarified that they “do not hold that convenience store employees have a duty to physically restrain or otherwise prevent intoxicated persons from driving."  Id. at 552.  As a result, if an intoxicated individual purchases gas at the pump by credit card and no employee is aware, or should be aware of their intoxicated state until after the gas is put into the vehicle, the employees are not required to physically restrain the individual from leaving the premises if they later learn the individual was intoxicated.


At the time this case came out, I was surprised by this Tennessee Supreme Court decision.  It imposed a duty on gas stations/convenience stores that had not been previously explicitly found in Tennessee.  This case expanded the scope of potential liability for convenience stores and gas stations when dealing with an intoxicated individual.  This ruling will also apply if someone is obviously under the influence of drugs at the time of the sale of the gas.    


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TAGS: Negligence, Dram Shop Law
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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