Friday, August 26, 2011

2011 WY 125

Summary of Decision August 26, 2011

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: Baessler v. Freier

Citation: 2011 WY 125

Docket Number: S-10-0212


Appeal from the District Court of Big Horn County, Honorable Steven R. Cranfill, Judge

Representing Appellant (Plaintiffs): Larry B. Jones and William L. Simpson of Simpson, Kepler & Edwards, The Cody, Wyoming division of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh and Jardine, Cody, Wyoming; and Patrick J. Crank of Nicholas & Crank Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee (Defendants): Ryan P. Healy of Healy Law Firm, Sheridan, Wyoming.

Representing Wyoming Attorney General in his official capacity: Jay Jerde, Deputy Attorney General.

Date of Decision: August 26, 2011

Facts: The district court dismissed the appellants’ a wrongful death/negligence against the appellees for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The appellants are the personal representatives of the estates of a husband and wife who were killed in a motor vehicle accident caused by a third party driver who also died in the accident. Prior to the accident the driver became intoxicated as a result of consuming alcoholic beverages establishments owned by the individually named appellees. His conduct at both establishments showed that he was highly intoxicated, and such conduct was obvious and noticeable to anyone in his presence. Nevertheless, the appellees’ employees at both establishments continued to serve him alcoholic beverages. The dismissal and this appeal raise issues of statutory construction and the constitutionality of a statute, with the focal question being the liability of a provider of alcohol for damages caused to a third person by the person to whom alcohol was provided.

Issues: Whether the word “legally” in Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301(a) (2011) encompasses legal enactments beyond Title 12 of the Wyoming Statutes such as the municipal ordinances at issue in this case. If Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301(a) prohibits liability under municipal ordinances, is the statute unconstitutional as violative of the equal protection provisions of the United States Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution. If Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 12-8-301(a) prohibits liability under municipal ordinances, is the statute unconstitutional as violative of the special law provisions of article 3, section 27 of the Wyoming Constitution.

Holdings: The legislature, a policy-making branch of government, chose not to place that duty upon the alcohol provider. Where the legislature has, in effect, preempted the field as to a statewide social issue, it is not the province of municipalities to enact contrary laws. The decision to impose liability, and under what circumstances, upon the suppliers of alcohol for the torts of their intoxicated patrons or guests is a matter of public policy which the legislature is best equipped to handle. Consequently, whereas municipalities may to some extent police the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at the local level, they may not by ordinance establish a negligence standard of care different from that chosen by the legislature.

It is the legislature’s prerogative to determine, as a matter of public policy, that the risk of injury to third persons as a result of someone’s alcohol consumption is better placed upon the consumer of that alcohol than upon its provider. The legislature has defined the duty/breach of duty elements of a negligence claim in terms of the liquor providers’ violations of the regulatory provisions of Title 12. In other words, this legislative line-drawing that results in injured third parties being able to recover from the alcohol consumer who injured them, but not the person who provided the alcohol to that consumer, does not violate the concept of equal protection of the laws. The legislature has allowed for liability on the part of the provider under certain circumstances, with those circumstances being limited to those set forth in Title 12. The addition of the municipal ordinance argument in the instant case does not change the result. In the pervasive regulatory scheme established in Title 12, the legislature established not only the regulations, but the consequences for their violation.

Ordinarily, a statute is regarded as a “special law” if it does not have a uniform operation. A law is “special” if it operates upon and affects only a fraction of the persons or a portion of the property encompassed by a classification, granting privileges to some while denying them to others. Special legislation relates either to particular persons, places, or things, or to persons, places or things which, though not particularized, are separated by any method of selection from the whole class to which the law might, but for such legislation, be applied. Classifications for the purpose of legislation, under a state constitution’s prohibition against special legislation, must be real and not illusive, and they cannot be based on distinctions without a substantial difference.

General laws are those operating uniformly throughout a state, which prescribe a rule of conduct upon citizens generally, and which operate with general uniform application throughout the state under the same circumstances and conditions. A law uniformly applying to a class of persons or things having a reasonable and just relationship to the regulated subject matter is a general law. Thus, for example, where a legislative method of providing aid has an equal impact on all members of a rationally defined class similarly situated, the law is a general law.

Some state constitutions require that laws of a general nature must have uniform operation. General laws operate uniformly, not because they operate on every person in the state, but because every person brought under the law is affected by it in uniform fashion, and a legislature may exclude certain persons or things from the application of a general law. A general law does not lose its general law status so long as it operates uniformly upon subjects as they may exist in the state, applies uniformly within permissible classifications, and operates universally throughout the state or so long as it relates to state function or instrumentality. However, a general law operates as an unreasonable classification, in violation of a uniformity clause, when it seeks to create artificial distinctions where no real distinction exists.

Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301 simply is not a special law. The statute has general application across the State, applies to all liquor vendors, and applies to all liquor vendors in the exact same fashion. The legislature has chosen to set forth the liquor industry regulatory scheme in Title 12 of the statutes, and has made liquor vendors liable for damages to third parties injured by patrons who obtained alcoholic beverages from vendors in violation of Title 12 provisions. The fact that the legislature chose not to incorporate into the law vendor liability based upon common law negligence, or upon laws lying outside of Title 12, does not render the section a special law. Recovery against vendors is a legislative creation, subject to legitimate limitations placed thereon. Not every immunity granted to an industry or practice violates article 3, section 27 of the Wyoming Constitution.

Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301(a) does not encompass municipal ordinances in the concept of “legally” as used therein, and the statute violates neither the constitutional doctrine of equal protection nor the constitutional prohibition of special laws.


J. Voigt delivered the opinion for the court.

C.J. Kite dissents, joined by J. Hill concluding that the word “legally” as used in Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301(a) (2011) encompasses not only violations of Title 12 but extends to violations of municipal ordinances. The legislature has not preempted the field so as to preclude cities and towns from enacting ordinances intended to reduce damages caused by excessive consumption of alcohol in their communities. Wyo. Stat. 12-8-301(a) means what it says—no person who legally provides alcohol to another person is liable for damages caused by that person’s intoxication. Under § 12-8-301(a) a person who provides alcohol to another person in violation of the law, including a municipal ordinance, may be liable for such damages.

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