MILFORD, Mass. – Livery companies' business of driving people for a night of partying could be reshaped by a recent state Supreme Judicial Court decision.
The case stems from a fatal car accident caused by a drunken driver who had been in a private van for a bachelor party earlier that night.
In its decision, the court said a livery company could be found negligible for leaving a drunken passenger at his car to drive home, even if it did not provide the alcohol, and "should be expected to have in place safeguards that would, to the extent feasible, keep intoxicated drivers off the road."
Justice John M. Greaney said in his opinion a company's liability is limited to a situation closely resembling this case, and a Superior Court jury must make a final decision on his court's ruling.
Nonetheless, companies may need to rethink how they transport clients to parties and whether they should be wary of taking the business at all.
"I think any company has to take a look at their operations and how they handle situations like this going forward," said Michael Callahan, president and CEO of Able Limousine in Hopkinton.
"The chauffeur is going to have to make some sort of decision about whether he can leave them there if they have a vehicle. I don't know how a chauffeur can say, 'You can't get out,' if they want to get out," he added.
John Zogby, a Milford personal injury lawyer, said the ruling means livery companies will probably have to create new policies for handling drunken clients. He said it puts drivers in "the difficult position of having to judge the level of intoxication of the passengers."
"What is he going to do - give them a field sobriety test before releasing them?" Zogby said. "That's not going to be good for business. Companies are often hired for the convenience to avoid the problems of drinking and getting behind the wheel."
The ruling stems from a fatal two-car accident in August 2001 in Boston. The driver who caused the accident was drunk and Ultimate Livery Service Inc. left him at his car outside a local bar. He got into a crash and someone in the other car died and others were injured.
Several passengers sued Ultimate Livery Service. A Superior Court judge dismissed their claims against the company, but the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling overturned part of it, saying Ultimate Livery Service could be found negligent. The court has now sent the case back to trial.
"A private carrier, engaged in the business of transporting persons consuming alcohol, is in a primary position to use care to avoid leaving an intoxicated passenger at a location where it is likely the passenger will drive," Greaney wrote in his opinion.
Alfred LaGasse, president of the Taxicab, Paratransit and Limousine Association, a union for taxi and limo drivers, said the ruling's full impact is unknown because a jury has yet to make a decision. He also argued the scope is limited because it only applies to companies that use a contract to transport clients, not a taxi, for example.
"What the next decision says may guide us on the impact much more," he said, adding, "We're not in the business of evaluating people, we're in the business of transporting people."
Callahan also said limousine companies should not react rashly. But he said the court's ruling leaves open the question of where the liability of businesses like his ends.
"We have the liability when they're in our care, for lack of a better word, but this extends to a whole new level," he said.
James N. Wittorff, a Milford personal injury lawyer, said the ruling places a "heavy burden" on limousine companies to determine if clients will drive after they are dropped somewhere for the night.
"I would think they're going to have to be very careful about where they pick people up and where they drop them off," Wittorff said.
Source: The Milford Daily News