Words of Warning: “If you promise the police that you will take charge of a drunk driver and his or her car, you will be counted on to do so.”

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

From the Appellate Division comes another case that sounds more like a law school hypothetical than real life. Here is the scenario: A driver is pulled over for a traffic offense. Signs point to the driver being intoxicated, but the police don’t conduct a field sobriety test. Instead, the officers allow the driver to call a friend to drive him home. The driver’s friend arrives and assures the offices that he will take the driver and his car “safely to a residence” (note: whether the friend promised to take the driver “home” is not clear).  Unfortunately, on the way to the “residence,” the drunk driver convinces his sober friend to let him drive again. The friend agrees and leaves the car. The driver takes control and later gets into a serious accident. The question is whether the friend can be civilly liable for the accident along with the drunk driver and others. The answer from Diaz v. Reynoso . . . maybe.

In Diaz, four friends – Reynoso, Dominguez, Gonzalez and Paredes – went to a rooftop party in Fort Lee and then an Argentinian restaurant in Englewood. Reynoso admitted to having at least two cocktails, a shot of tequila, and two beers at the restaurant. When they left the restaurant, the four friends split up – Reynoso left in his car with Gonzalez as a passenger, while Paredes left in his van with Dominguez as his passenger.

Shortly thereafter, police officers stopped Reynoso’s car after they observed it travelling the wrong way down a one-way street. After speaking with Reynoso , one of the officers asked Reynoso if he felt capable of driving. He said he did, but also offered to call someone to pick him up. The officer “responded that would be preferable.” The officers did not administer any field sobriety tests on the driver.

Reynoso called Dominguez, who arrived a short time later with Paredes. The officers explained the situation to Dominguez and told him to take Reynoso “home to Bergenfield.”  (Although seemingly benign, where Dominguez agreed to take Reynoso is important because Reynoso lived in Fair Lawn, not Bergenfield.) The officers then issued Reynoso a moving violation, and allowed Dominguez to drive Reynoso’s car (and Reynoso) from the scene. The other two friends followed in Paredes’s van.

Some time later, Dominguez and Reynoso were stopped at a railroad crossing. Reynoso “began arguing with Dominguez and demanding he drive his car.” Dominguez eventually relented, got out of the car, and got into Paredes’s van. Dominguez claims he did not see Reynoso again. Unfortunately, later that night, Reynoso crashed his car into plaintiff’s Jeep, causing significant injuries to plaintiff.

Plaintiff sued Reynoso, Dominguez, the Argentinian restaurant, and the two officers who allowed Dominguez to drive Reynoso from the scene.

Dominguez moved to dismiss, arguing that he owed plaintiff no duty. Plaintiff and the other defendants opposed the motion, but the trial court granted it and dismissed the claims against Dominguez. The trial court held that “Dominguez at best, had a duty to drive away from a scene of a motor vehicle stop.” That was “all he was asked to do by the police . . . which he did.” “And to create a duty and a continuing duty ad infinitum over somebody else’s vehicle and over some other person who was not incarcerated or arrested is inapposite to . . . our law.”

The co-defendants appealed. The Appellate Division reversed. It began by describing what is known as “John’s Law,” N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.22, which requires police to provide a written warning to anyone to whom the police release a drunk driver who had been arrested or taken into custody. The warning provides, among other things, that the person who undertakes to take the drunk driver home can have “potential civil and criminal liability for allowing that person to resume driving while intoxicated.” While not triggered in this case, since Reynoso was not arrested or taken into custody, the Appellate Division concluded that John’s Law nonetheless supported the co-defendants’ theory that Dominguez owed a duty of care.

The Appellate Division also noted that New Jersey law “makes it an offense to knowingly permit a visibly intoxicated person to drive.” Again, although perhaps not squarely on all fours with the situation before it, the Appellate Division nonetheless noted that this also supported the co-defendants’ theory of liability.

Finally, the Appellate Division looked to common law principles that “are consistent with a recognition of a legal duty on the part of the volunteer driver,” including the Restatement sections: “Duty of One Who Takes Charge of Another Who Is Helpless,” “Performance of an Undertaking to Render Services,” and “Duty to Another Based on Taking Charge of the Other.” Like the statutory authority discussed above, these common-law principles supported imposing a duty on Dominguez, at least in theory.

Based on all of this, the Appellate Division held that the trial court should not have dismissed the claims against Dominguez. Viewing the facts in favor of the co-defendants, as it must on a motion to dismiss, the Appellate Division held that there were factual issues that needed to be resolved before it could be determined that Dominguez assumed and breached a duty when he promidsed to drive Reynoso and Reynoso’s car from the traffic stop. In doing so, however, the Appellate Division imposed “[o]ne major caveat,” holding that “[t]he presence of such a legal duty will hinge upon whether the volunteer is advised by the police, or objectively has reason to know from the surrounding circumstances, that his or her promise is an important obligation and that failing to carry it out could result in civil financial consequences. Adding such an actual or constructive notice condition to the common law rule is in keeping with the analogous notice feature of John’s Law.”

Helpfully, after engaging in lengthy legal analysis to come to this conclusion, the Appellate Division left the parties with a simple message:

“The core message of this opinion can be bluntly stated: If you promise the police that you will take charge of a drunk driver and his or her car, you will be counted on to do so. You can be held liable if you don’t.”

The Appellate Division also added, however, that Dominguez’s potential liability did not “absolve any other parties whose negligence, if proven, contributed to the harm.” The court noted that this included “the drink driver himself, the police officials who failed to field test or arrest him, and the restaurant that served him alcohol.”

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