JOEL STAFFORD v. ALBERT ROADWAY et al., SC 19092
Judicial District of New London
Torts; Whether Contributory Negligence a Defense to Claim of Negligent Service of Alcohol to a Minor; Whether Court Properly Admitted Evidence of Minor’s Prior Drug and Alcohol Use. On August 25, 2007, when the plaintiff was twenty years old, he consumed alcoholic beverages at the home of defendant Albert Roadway and then proceeded with Roadway and others to a nearby field where a bonfire had been set. The plaintiff continued to drink there and eventually fell asleep in a chair. Witnesses claimed that when the plaintiff awoke, he walked toward the bonfire, stumbled and fell onto the coals. The plaintiff suffered severe burns, and he brought this action against Roadway and others alleging that Roadway was negligent in providing him with alcohol when he knew that the plaintiff was under the legal drinking age. The plaintiff also claimed that, as he was visibly intoxicated, Roadway was negligent in allowing him to continue drinking by the bonfire. Over the plaintiff’s objection, the trial court allowed defense counsel to elicit evidence of the plaintiff’s use of alcohol and drugs both prior to and after the incident, and there was testimony that the plaintiff had smoked marijuana and had on many occasions drunk to the point of intoxication. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Roadway. While the jury found that the plaintiff proved that Roadway breached a duty of care he owed the plaintiff and that the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, it also found that Roadway proved his special defense of contributory negligence in that the plaintiff was more than 50 percent responsible for his own injuries. The plaintiff moved to set aside the verdict, claiming that the trial court committed harmful error in allowing evidence of his prior drug and alcohol use. Roadway countered that the evidence was relevant to his contributory negligence defense because it showed that the plaintiff had a habit of becoming intoxicated and that he knew that becoming intoxicated would impair his senses. The trial court denied the motion to set aside and rendered judgment on the verdict. The plaintiff appeals, claiming the trial court erred in charging the jury on Roadway’s special defenses of contributory negligence and contributory recklessness. He argues that those are not valid defenses to a claim of negligent service of alcohol to a minor because minors are presumed to lack the capacity to fully understand the risks associated with intoxication. The plaintiff also claims that the court wrongly admitted evidence of his prior drug and alcohol use both because the evidence unfairly prejudiced his case and because it was offered in support of the invalid defense of contributory negligence.