SANTA FE, N.M. — Gas stations have a legal obligation not to sell fuel to drivers who are believed to be intoxicated, the New Mexico Supreme Court said Monday in a decision that could have far-reaching effects on businesses and that only one other state applies so strictly.
The divided court outlined a precedent-setting ruling that raises the implication that not only gasoline merchants but other types of businesses — from auto parts stores and tire shops to mechanics — could be on the hook for ensuring they don’t sell products to people who then drive drunk.
The decision notes that only one other state — Tennessee — applies the law in such a way to create a “duty of care” for businesses to refrain from supplying fuel to drunken drivers because of the risk of driving while intoxicated.
The ruling came in 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 an intoxicated driver in 2011. After refueling and returning to the highway, that driver crossed the center line and crashed into an oncoming vehicle, killing a person.
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 that the New Mexico Legislature this year prohibited the sale of hard liquor at convenience store gas stations 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.