New Mexico Supreme Court Rules Gas Stations Can Be Liable for Drunk Driving

A ruling from the New Mexico Supreme Court makes gas stations liable for drunk drivers if they sell them fuel, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for businesses.

The divided court detailed a precent-setting ruling that applies to gasoline merchants and businesses like auto parts stores, tire shops and mechanics. Those merchants could be forbidden from selling products to people who then drive drunk.

Only one other state, Tennessee, applies the law in such a way to create a "duty of care for businesses to withhold fuel to drunk drivers due to the dangers associated with driving under the influence.

The decision from the court is a response to a request from a federal appeals court to resolve a question of state law concerning the potential liability of a retailer that sold gasoline to a drunk driver in 2011. The driver pulled onto the highway after purchasing gasoline, crossed the center line and crash into an oncoming vehicle, killing one person.

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New Mexico Gas
A recent New Mexico Supreme Court ruling makes gas stations liable for drunk drivers if they sell them fuel. A defunct gas station and store along historic Route 66 in Budville, New Mexico. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Under the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, the owners of potentially dangerous goods have a responsibility to supply those goods only to someone competent to safely use them. New Mexico courts have recognized in past decisions that the owner of a vehicle who entrusts an intoxicated person to drive it may be liable for injuries caused by the drunken driving.

While New Mexico has no law that would prohibit the sale of gasoline to intoxicated drivers, the court's majority wrote that a duty not to sell gasoline to someone who is drunk is consistent with liability for giving that person alcohol or a vehicle.

"Gasoline is required to operate most vehicles today. Providing gasoline to an intoxicated driver is like providing car keys to an intoxicated driver," the majority wrote.

The court reviewed past legal precedents, statutes and other principles of law in reaching its decision. The majority noted the New Mexico Legislature this year prohibited the sale of hard liquor at convenience store gas stations in one county. State law also holds businesses and others liable for selling or serving alcohol to intoxicated people.

In her dissenting opinion, now-retired Justice Barbara Vigil wrote that selling or serving alcohol is regulated and that laws don't warrant extending liability for drunken driving to retail sales of nonalcoholic goods.

She noted that "this sea change in the law could have far-reaching consequences for retail businesses"—from auto parts stores and tire shops to mechanics and others who will be left guessing as to whether they are subject to the new duty.

Vigil added that it's unclear how much investigation gas stations will have to do to determine whether a person may be intoxicated when trying to refuel a vehicle, particularly when many drivers pay at the pump rather than dealing with a worker inside.