Wine in Grocery Stores and Liquor Liability in Tennessee

Today, Tennessee saw a historic change in its liquor laws. The House passed a bill to allow grocery stores to sell wine.   The Senate had previously passed its version of the bill last month and proponents anticipate the Senate will approve the minor changes made by the House. As for the final step, Governor Haslam is expected to sign the bill as he has previously indicated he would defer to the Legislature on this issue.

Whether you are for or against the passage of the law, one thing is for sure: the privilege of being able to sell wine also carries some responsibility. Let’s review the basics of Tennessee liquor liability law, which were passed by the Tennessee Legislature. The statutes make it quite clear that the consumption of alcohol, rather than the furnishing of it, is the proximate cause of any injury. What does this mean? It means if you go to the grocery store, buy and then drink a bottle of wine and somehow injure yourself due to your intoxication, then you have no claim against the grocery store who sold you the wine. And the law goes one step further: if you go to the grocery store, buy and drink a bottle of wine and then cause a car accident in which you hurt someone else, the grocery store is still not liable. 

But, there are exceptions to these general rules: you may have a claim against a grocery store if the grocery store sold wine to a minor or if the grocery store sold wine to an “obviously intoxicated” person.   Proof of one of these exceptions must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher burden than the ordinary civil case. In most civil cases, the injured party must only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. 

I know what are thinking:   (a) who thinks of these term, and (b) why do bars and stores that sell liquor get special treatment under the law?

 Here is the best way to understand a “preponderance of the evidence”. Imagine the scales of justice and they are exactly even, now imagine the injured party having enough proof to slightly tip the scale in his or her favor, it can be as little as 51%, that is a preponderance of the evidence. On the other hand, the burden of proof in a liquor liability claim is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is usually reserved only for criminal cases.

Assuming all goes as anticipated and grocery stores begin selling wine, owners and managers will need to ensure all sales clerks are properly trained so that a sale is not made to an “obviously intoxicated” person or a minor.  

The answer to the second question – why do bars and stores that sell liquor get special treatment under the law – is because they have lobbyists and political action committees and exert tremendous influence on the Legislature.  Twenty-five years ago the liquor lobby promoted the passage of legislation to protect itself from lawsuits.  Today, such lawsuits are extremely rare.  Not because bars and restaurants have stopped selling booze to those are obviously drunk, but because they are shielded by a law that gives them special protections under the law.