Winery Not Liable for Alcohol-Related Crash, Judge Rules

, New York Law Journal

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Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards & Winery in Hector
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards & Winery in Hector was found not liable for a fatal collision caused by a former employee.

ALBANY - A Finger Lakes vineyard is not liable for a deadly crash in which a tasting-room employee, intoxicated on the winery's free beverages, struck and killed one motorcyclist and severely injured another just after leaving work, a judge ruled.

Acting Wayne County Supreme Court Justice Dennis Kehoe (See Profile) rejected arguments seeking to hold Hazlitt's 1852 Vineyards & Winery responsible for the fatal collision under various theories, including common law negligence and a violation of the state Dram Shop Law.

Kehoe said lawyers for the relatives of the dead motorcyclist, Gary Parker, and the injured motorcyclist Timothy Herkimer made a "strong plea that business should take responsibility for the actions of their employees if they subject the public to dangerous situations as a result of their actions at work."

But the judge in Parker v. Dunn, 71325, noted, "While the Court acknowledges that there may well be a moral imperative, a defendant has no legal duty to third parties in these circumstances."

A vehicle owned by the vineyard's employee, Jamie Dunn, struck the motorcyclists soon after he left work at the Hector, N.Y. winery on May 31, 2009. Authorities said he was trying to pass another car in a no-passing zone when he hit the motorcycles head-on.

A Breathalyzer test administered about two hours after the crash placed Dunn's blood alcohol content at 0.17 percent, more than twice the minimum level for driving while intoxicated.

The judge said, "It is conceded by all parties that whatever alcohol Dunn consumed on the day in question, he received free of charge from Hazlitt."

Dunn, now 27, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated. He is serving a two-to-seven-year sentence in state prison.

Kehoe said he "carefully" reviewed theories of common-law negligence when preparing his decision but could find none that provided an "arguable basis" for holding the winery liable.

Dunn was not on vineyard property when the accident occurred and was not carrying out job responsibilities—circumstances that would have triggered vicarious liability on the vineyard's part, the judge said. He also rejected liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

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