Friday, 20 November 2009

Who's responsible when you've had too much?

So just when is it safe to blame someone else for what you do after you drink?

With new laws emerging to ensure parents' liability for giving alcohol to minors at private parties, the teenagers will have a sure target.

But we can thank the High Court for the latest bombshell for adults.

Now the pub is in the clear if you leave after a session and kill yourself on the road. What's the world coming to?

The decision arose from the case of Shane Scott, a 41-year-old backhoe operator who settled in for an evening at the Tandara Motor Inn on Tasmania's east coast in the summer of 2002.

He put his motorbike in the hotel's plant room and handed his keys across the bar because the word was that there was a police breathalyser about.

Scott drank eight cans of whisky and coke over three hours, swore at the publican for offering to ring his wife to pick him up, demanded the keys, mounted his bike with apparent control, and rode off.

Within minutes he crashed into a bridge and died, with a blood alcohol reading of .253.

The case taken by his widow, Sandra, and the Motor Accident Insurance Board of Tasmania, was that the publican, Michael Kirkpatrick, failed in his duty of care to Scott.

This was rejected by the Tasmanian Supreme Court, accepted on majority appeal to its Full Court, and finally knocked over last week by the High Court.

It decided publicans had no general duty to "monitor and minimise the service of alcohol, or to protect customers from the consequences of the alcohol they choose to consume".

Pubs were, and still are, bound by specific laws that demand licensees not serve liquor to people who are drunk, disorderly, or causing undue annoyance.

But how can someone serving alcohol really go that extra step beyond denying service, and accept a civil duty of care to a customer who's had too much?

Scott wasn't a pupil under the control of a teacher, a patient in hospital, or even a prisoner in jail. He was under his own steam. Introducing a civil duty of care test for such people wouldn't work, the court said.

"Expressions like 'intoxication', 'inebriation', and 'drunkenness' are difficult both to define and apply," the court's justices Gummow, Heydon and Crennan concluded.

Too much inquisition into how drinkers felt was impractical, impertinent and an intrusion.

"To ask how the drinker feels, and what the drinker's mental and physical capacity is, would tend to destroy peaceful relations, and would collide with the interests of drinkers in their personal privacy."

The judgment also got around to issues of individual responsibility in one telling sentence.

"Virtually all adults know that progressive drinking increasingly impairs on's judgment and capacity to take care of oneself."

But for those who would rather not cross that bridge, they did offer a glimmer of hope.

There may be "exceptional" cases where a publican has a duty of care. All you have to be is so blotto you're incapable of any rational judgment, intellectually impaired, obviously mentally ill, or unconscious.

@'The Age'

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