The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that a friend who allowed an intoxicated driver to get behind the wheel can be held civilly liable for injuries caused by the driver. The case represents an expansion of liability to third parties beyond the driver of the automobile and an extension of the public policy established by what is known as “John’s Law,” N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.22. The case provides additional protection to victims of a motor vehicle accident when the negligent driver is intoxicated. The case is captioned Diaz v. Reynoso, (App. Div. June 1, 2021).
The case involved an intoxicated driver who was pulled over for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Police officers on the scene issued a ticket to the driver for a moving violation, but permitted the driver to call a friend who arrived at the scene and volunteered to drive the “apparently inebriated driver.” The original driver was not asked to exit the vehicle and field sobriety tests were not performed.
The volunteer driver represented to the Police officers at the scene that he would drive the intoxicated driver’s car, and drove the vehicle away, but shortly thereafter relinquished control of the vehicle back to the inebriated driver and left the vehicle. Less than an hour later, the inebriated driver was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. Blood drawn from the driver several hours after the accident showed a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .244%, well in excess of the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle and in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.
The issue on appeal was whether the friend could be held liable in a lawsuit filed by the injured crash victim. Previously, courts have held that absent a special relationship, individuals such as passengers could not be held liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated driver. The adoption of “John’s Law” in 2000 represented a shift in public policy on this issue. John’s Law extended civil or criminal liability to an individual who arranges to transport an individual who has been arrested for driving while intoxicated if they permit that individual to drive again while the individual remains intoxicated. The law did not directly apply in this case because the driver had not been arrested during the motor vehicle stop for driving while intoxicated.
However, the Appellate Division concluded that public policy warranted extending the common law liability to the friend and advanced the goal of keeping dangerous drivers off roadways in a circumstance when the friend told the police that he would drive the vehicle. The Court noted the obligation of the volunteer driver to act reasonably could have encompassed a duty to call 9-1-1 and advise the police that the impaired driver had resumed driving. The Court concluded with the warning that if you promise the police you will take charge of a drunk driver and fail to do so, you could be held liable.
The lawyers at Starkey, Kelly, Kenneally, Cunningham & Turnbach will continue to monitor developments in the law to keep our clients advised of their rights.