Judge Tosses Suit by Estate of Employee Killed in Crash After Mandatory Wine Tasting

February 9, 2024 by

A Connecticut judge has tossed a lawsuit by the estate of a woman who was killed in a crash while driving intoxicated following a mandatory wine tasting at the restaurant that employed her.

The estate brought claims of common law negligence and wrongful death against the owners of the restaurant for their alleged negligence in serving Nicole Silva too much alcohol and not offering her transportation to her home.

But Judge Elizabeth Stewart in the Superior Court in New Haven rejected Silva’s claims, affirming that there is no common law cause of action for negligent service of alcohol to a person, and the Dram Shop Act only provides a cause of action to a third party who is injured by the person who was served alcohol, not to the intoxicated person herself.

Silva was an employee of Consiglio’s Restaurant who participated in a mandatory wine tasting event there. The complaint alleged that the defendants knew that she was there and consuming alcohol, and they knew or should have known that she was served an excessive quantity of alcohol. Silva drove herself toward her home and on the way, she was involved in a head-on collision with another vehicle. She died from the injuries sustained in the collision. More than four hours after the wine tasting began, her blood alcohol level content was 197 mg/dI, where a person appears drunk and may have severe visual impairment.

Judge Stewart cited an almost identical 1967 case (Nolan v. Morelli) in which the Connecticut Supreme Court held that “neither the Dram Shop Act nor the common law of negligence provided a widow a wrongful death cause of action” after a woman’s husband became intoxicated at the defendants’ establishments and died in a one-car accident. The Supreme Court recognized that the Dram Shop Act had modified the common law, but only to provide a cause of action to a third party, not the intoxicated person.

Also, the judge noted, since a 2003 amendment to the Dram Shop Act, superior courts consistently have held that the intoxicated person has no cause of action in common law negligence or wrongful death based on negligence against purveyors of alcohol for injuries the intoxicated person causes to herself.

The judge further found that there is no duty on behalf of a purveyor of alcohol to provide an intoxicated patron with transportation, citing another superior court ruling in 2009 (Welton v. Ferrara).

Silva’s estate attempted to distinguish her case by arguing she was an employee rather than a patron of the establishment. She claimed that this “unique situation” has not been adjudicated by any Connecticut court and is a question of fact for the jury to decide. But the judge rejected that argument. “That is not the proper role for the jury. The question of whether the defendants here owed a duty to the plaintiff’s decedent is a question of law for the court, not the jury, to decide,” she wrote.

It is possible, the judge continued, that there might be a public policy argument for extending the legal duty of care to this situation but Silva’s estate offered no such analysis.

Finally. the court said the estate was correct that the Workers Compensation Act “categorically bars” a plaintiff from recovering due to her consumption of alcohol, with no exception granted for the alcohol being consumed due to a mandatory work event. The statute’s definition of “arising out of and in the course of employment” provides that “in the case of an accidental injury, a disability or death due the use of alcohol or narcotic drugs shall not be construed to be a compensable injury.”

Therefore, while the Workers Compensation Act might not bar the plaintiff from bringing a common law claim against her employers, she “cannot get around the law that there is no such common law claim.”