Attorney David Heisler of Cipriani & Werner’s Scranton office recently obtained summary judgment in favor of a local casino in a case involving the duties of a valet service with regard to an allegedly visibly intoxicated individual. Prior to the court’s decision, there was no Pennsylvania law on point regarding this specific issue.
On January 15, 2011, at 6:51 p.m., the decedent arrived at the casino and handed over the keys to his vehicle to a valet service. At approximately 7:30 p.m., the decedent was seen by other patrons in the bar area of the casino allegedly to be visibly intoxicated. No one saw the decedent consume any alcoholic beverages on the premises. At 8:02 p.m., the decedent requested his car from the valet service. His vehicle was delivered to him at 8:11 p.m. Thereafter, the decedent was involved in a fatal one-vehicle accident not far from the casino.
The decedent’s estate filed a complaint on August 9, 2011. There was a Dram Shop claim for serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. There also was a negligence claim for handing over the decedent’s vehicle to him, while he was visibly intoxicated. After extensive discovery, the defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking judgment in its favor on all claims.
After reviewing the applicable law, the court entered judgment in favor of the defendant on all claims. In regard to the Dram Shop claim, the court noted that there was no direct evidence to support the assertion that the defendant had served the decedent alcoholic beverages while he was visibly intoxicated, despite the fact that his blood alcohol content at the time of the accident was .329. The court noted that the decedent was on the premises only for a relatively short period of time, and there were other independent vendors on the premises who could have sold alcoholic beverages to the decedent. The plaintiff had argued that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to allow the case to proceed to a jury. The court disagreed and found that under the circumstances any finding by the jury would be mere speculation.
In regard to the valet service claim, the court acknowledged that there was no law in Pennsylvania that supported the duty that the plaintiff sought to impose on the valet service. The court found the plaintiff’s reliance on public interest and social policy very persuasive, but in the final analysis, the case was decided on the basis of bailment. In a bailment situation, one party (the bailor) entrusts property to another (the bailee) on a temporary basis. In such a situation, the bailee has an obligation at law to return the property to the bailor upon request. The court noted that in the valet service arrangement, failure to return the vehicle to the decedent could constitute a conversion (theft), as the valet arrangement is a bailor-bailee relationship. Judgment therefore was entered in favor of the defendant.
What This Means to YouThis case concerns an issue that could have far-reaching effects on businesses in Pennsylvania that provide valet services. An adverse decision would have had the effect of turning a simple bailment situation into a negligent entrustment-type claim. Such an expansion of the duty on a valet service would have substantially increased exposure to liability and, consequently, increased costs on businesses providing such services.