Joel Stafford v. Albert Roadway et al.
-- February 22, 2012
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (# 168)
On March 4, 2011, the plaintiff, Joel Stafford, filed a twenty-four-count amended complaint against the defendants, Albert Roadway, Janet Gardner, Tony Gardner, Scott Zieber, Rick Zieber, Nancy Zieber, Shirley Dubicki, April Gregory, Heidi Killiany, Mayleen Soto, Monica Marocchini and Bora Kim, for personal injuries allegedly sustained by the plaintiff as a result of the defendants' negligence and recklessness.1 Counts one through six of the amended complaint, which are at issue in the present motion, allege the following facts. On August 25, 2007, Stafford went to the residence owned by Janet Gardner, Tony Gardner and Roadway, located at 290 Browning Road in Norwich, Connecticut. While at the residence, Stafford was provided and consumed alcohol to the point of visible intoxication. Stafford and others then went to a vacant field adjacent to the residence owned by Rick Zieber and Nancy Zieber, located at 289 Browning Road in Norwich, Connecticut. Rick Zieber and Nancy Zieber owned, controlled and maintained the vacant field, and Scott Zieber assisted in setting up a bonfire in the field prior to Stafford's arrival. While at the field, Stafford consumed additional alcoholic beverages and became more visibly intoxicated while standing and/or sitting around the bonfire. Stafford subsequently passed out and/or fell asleep in a chair next to the bonfire as a result of his intoxication. When Stafford awoke, he discovered that he had been severely burned by the bonfire.
On July 8, 2011, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment as to counts one through six on the ground that there exists no genuine issues of material fact, and therefore, they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The defendants filed a memorandum of law in support, accompanied by the excerpts of the certified deposition transcripts of the plaintiff, the defendants and Killiany. On November 29, 2011, the plaintiff filed his objection to the defendants' motion, accompanied by a memorandum of law in opposition and his signed and sworn affidavit, the signed and sworn affidavit of Dennis Hilliard, a toxicologist, and excerpts of the certified deposition transcripts of Kim, Jason Dodson, Brandon Glidden, Janet Gardner, Tony Gardner and the plaintiff.
“Practice Book § 17–49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Brooks v. Sweeney, 299 Conn. 196, 210, 9 A.3d 347 (2010). “In seeking summary judgment, it is the movant who has the burden of showing the nonexistence of any issue of fact. The courts are in entire agreement that the moving party for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue as to all the material facts, which, under applicable principles of substantive law, entitle him to a judgment as a matter of law. The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy his burden the movant must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ramirez v. Health Net of the Northeast, Inc., 285 Conn. 1, 10–11, 938 A.2d 576 (2008). “In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court's function is not to decide issues of material fact, but rather to determine whether any such issues exist.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Maltas v. Maltas, 298 Conn. 354, 365, 2 A.3d 902 (2010).
The defendants argue that summary judgment should be granted in their favor because they did not provide the plaintiff with alcohol or permit him to consume alcohol in their home, nor do they own the vacant field where the plaintiff alleges he was injured. Specifically, Janet Gardner and Tony Gardner argue that there is no duty to control the conduct of a third person absent a special relationship, which is not present here. Janet Gardner and Tony Gardner argue that there is no basis in fact to support the allegations that they provided alcohol to the plaintiff or permitted the plaintiff to consume alcohol in their home. Moreover, Roadway argues that he does not own the Gardner home or the vacant field.
The plaintiff counters that summary judgment is inappropriate because the plaintiff was a minor at the time of the incident. The plaintiff argues that Janet Gardner and Tony Gardner, who claimed to be home on the night of the incident, cannot escape liability based on their claimed ignorance of the plaintiff's presence in their home; and, they had a duty to know what was happening in their home. The plaintiff argues that he had consumed alcoholic beverages before arriving at the bonfire and that he consumed said alcoholic beverages at the Gardner home, in the presence of Roadway.
“The common-law rule regarding social host liability in Connecticut states that no tort cause of action [lies] against one who furnished, whether by sale or gift, intoxicating liquor to a person who thereby voluntarily became intoxicated and in consequence of his intoxication injured the person or property of either himself or another ․
“In Ely v. Murphy, 207 Conn. 88, 540 A.2d 54 (1998), our Supreme Court recognized this common-law principle; however, the court then proceeded to carve out an exception for circumstances in which alcohol is furnished to a minor.” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Pike v. Bugbee, 115 Conn.App. 820, 828–29, 974 A.2d 743, cert. granted, 293 Conn. 923, 980 A.2d 912 (2009). Furthermore, the Supreme Court reasoned that this exception is consistent with the general rule that “absent a special relationship of custody or control, there is no duty to protect a third person from the conduct of another ․ The fact that the common law imposes no duty to act as a good Samaritan does not confer immunity on those who negligently choose to act.” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Bohan v. Last, 236 Conn. 670, 679, 674 A.2d 839 (1996).
“In appropriate circumstances, adults have a duty to refrain from negligently or intentionally supplying alcohol to minors, whether such adults act as social hosts in their homes or as purveyors in a bar, because minors are presumed not to have the capacity to understand fully the risks associated with intoxication.” Bohan v. Last, supra, 236 Conn. 681. “[A] social host or other purveyor of alcohol will be liable, to the minor served or to innocent third parties thereafter injured, if a court or a jury finds, as a matter of fact, a proximate cause relationship between the service of the alcohol and the damages ensuing from the minor's consumption of alcohol.” Id., 677. “[T]he matter of proximate cause of the injury and ensuing damage becomes one of fact to be determined in each instance by the court or jury as the parties elect.” Ely v. Murphy, supra, 207 Conn. 97.
In Reynolds v. McAvoy, Superior Court, judicial district of Danbury, Docket No. CV 02 0346701 (November 4, 2004, Nadeau, J.), the defendant moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's social host liability claim on the ground that he did not serve or provide alcohol that he had purchased to anyone in his residence. The court denied summary judgment and found that “whether [the defendant's] guests consume the alcohol stored at [the defendant's] home or only the alcohol brought by themselves or others, a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether [the defendant] knowingly or negligently provided a place for his guests to consume or overindulge with alcohol.” Id. “[A]s a social host of a party that involved underage drinking, a duty of care exists, and a jury is permitted to determine whether that duty was breached ․” Id.
According to the evidence in the present case, including the plaintiff's own deposition testimony, it is undisputed that the plaintiff was not provided alcohol by the defendants. Both Janet Gardner and Tony Gardner state in their depositions that they were home on the night of the incident. They deny, however, that they invited the plaintiff into their house, that they knew of the plaintiff's presence in their house or that they knew that the plaintiff was consuming alcohol. On the other hand, the plaintiff states in his affidavit that immediately prior to attending the bonfire, he was present with Roadway and others in Roadway's bedroom, and he consumed alcoholic beverages. The plaintiff offers the deposition transcripts of other attendees at the bonfire, including Dodson and Glidden, that indicate Stafford arrived at the bonfire visibly intoxicated. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the defendants “knowingly or negligently provided a place for [the plaintiff] to consume or overindulge with alcohol.” See Reynolds v. McAvoy, supra, Superior Court, Docket No. CV 02 0346701. Therefore, whether the duty of care was breached in this case is a genuine issue of material fact that cannot be resolved on summary judgment.
Similarly, whether a proximate cause relationship exists between the plaintiff's alleged consumption of alcohol in the defendants' house and his damages resulting from the injuries suffered at the bonfire is an issue of fact that is not properly resolved by a motion for summary judgment. Therefore, the defendants' motion based on their alleged lack of ownership of the vacant field must be denied on that ground as well.
Accordingly, there exists genuine issues of material fact that need to be resolved by the fact-finder, and the court cannot conclude that the defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The defendants' motion for summary judgment must be denied.
Based on the foregoing reasons, the defendants' motion for summary judgment is denied.
1. FN1. Scott Zieber, Rick Zieber, Nancy Zieber, Dubicki, Gregory, Killiany, Soto, Marocchini and Kim are not parties to the present motion. Hereinafter, the term “the defendants” refers to Roadway, Janet Gardner and Tony Gardner, collectively.
Martin, Robert A., J.