Valet liability very low in drunk driving cases


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Bartenders and bar owners can be held liable for serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated guests. But what about the parking valet who encounters Joe Twelvepack after he staggers out of the watering hole?

Mindy Heisler, who works on the South Side, said she was left to wonder after seeing valets returning cars to wobbly revelers during the weekend's St. Patrick's Day celebration.

While the festivities were much more orderly than those of years past, Ms. Heisler said she watched valets hustle cars back to their owners after she left work for the night.

"These people are drunk and they're handing them their keys back," she said. "These were people that I wouldn't serve if they walked into my bar."

Under Pennsylvania's Dram Shop Law, bar owners and bartenders who serve visibly intoxicated people can be held legally responsible for any damage or injuries they subsequently cause.

But the law does not extend that liability to parking valets, said attorney Michael Rosenzweig, partner at Edgar Snyder & Associates who also teaches advanced tort law at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Dram Shop Law does not apply because "a valet is not a liquor licensee. The valet is not serving alcohol," he said.

Kim Collins, president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, said the valet service was part of a comprehensive transportation plan designed to keep as many visitors' cars as possible off of residential streets. The possibility of intoxicated people trying to reclaim their cars was discussed, and the company that was chosen to provide valet service agreed to offer shuttle rides home to anyone unfit to drive.

"Legally, all valets have to give the keys back" if a driver insists, she said.

"It is a moral question when someone is intoxicated and they want their car," said Dave Jason, a partner in D&P Valet LLC, which operated the South Side service on Saturday. That is why the company offers rides home to those who feel they can't drive.

"Even if they don't have the money [to pay for the ride], we'll get them home" and settle up when they return the next day for their vehicles, he said.

Two people were driven home after the St. Patrick's Day celebration, he said.

Valets aren't able to determine the sobriety of most customers and could provoke lawsuits by wrongly accusing someone of intoxication, embarrassing them in front of their companions, he said. And "there are no legal grounds for us to deprive someone of their property," he added.

In an extreme situation, such as someone unable to stand or walk, the service would notify police, Mr. Jason said.

The issue of what valets should do with potentially intoxicated drivers arose in a case that is currently pending before the state Superior Court. In January 2011, Richard Moranko, 38, visited the Mohegan Sun Casino in Luzerne County. When he retrieved his car from the valet, witnesses observed that he was intoxicated and that the attendants did not offer to call a cab or alert security. Later, his car collided with a tractor-trailer, killing him.

His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.329, more than four times the threshold for drunken driving.

His mother sued in Luzerne County Common Pleas Court, but the judge ruled in favor of the casino, saying there was no evidence it had served Moranko alcohol during his one-hour, 20-minute visit. The claim that valets should have withheld his vehicle "is premised on a duty not yet found in Pennsylvania law," Judge William H. Amesbury ruled.

While the plaintiff made a case that the public interest would be served by such an obligation, the defendant made a more compelling argument that withholding the vehicle would be an improper seizure of property for which the casino could have been held liable.

"This court is mindful of its duty to apply the law and not to create it," the judge wrote.

Ms. Moranko appealed, and a three-judge panel of Superior Court heard arguments in September. It has not ruled in the matter.

Jamie Joseph Anzalone, attorney for Ms. Moranko, disagreed that the casino could have faced liability for temporarily withholding the keys.

Moreover, the casino had discretion to take several other steps, including offering Moranko a ride home, offering to call a cab or arranging for a friend to pick him up. Had he refused, the casino staff should have told him he had the right to take his vehicle, but that police would be called.

"We have witness statements that the valets were laughing at this guy" because he was so obviously drunk, Mr. Anzalone said.

A Florida appeals court reached a conclusion similar to that of Judge Amesbury in a case decided in 2012. In it, a man left a bar visibly intoxicated and retrieved his car from a valet. He later crashed, killing a female companion.

The court held that the valet did not have the right to keep the vehicle and could have been held liable for depriving the owner of its possession.

The ruling cited an Illinois case in which a repair shop owner was sued for returning a car to an intoxicated owner. Once the repair bill was paid, the shop "had no discretion to refuse (to return the vehicle) without being found liable," the court ruled.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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