NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Monday that gas stations may be liable for selling fuel to intoxicated drivers. According to a news release, the court’s majority concluded that the “legal doctrine of negligent entrustment of chattel applied to the sale of gasoline – creating a “duty of care” for vendors to refrain from supplying fuel to drunken drivers because of the risk of harm from driving while intoxicated.”

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Chief Justice Michael E. Vigil and Justices C. Shannon Bacon and David K. Thomson formed the Court’s majority. Justice Barbara J. Vigil dissented saying this could have far-reaching consequences for retail businesses and no New Mexico law specifically requires non-alcohol vendors to prevent DWI. Vigil retired from the court at the end of June.

The decision comes in response from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to resolve a question of state law concerning the potential liability of a McKinley County retailer that sold gasoline in 2011 to an intoxicated driver, Andy Denny, near Tohatchi.

Gallup Deacon Marcellino Morris Jr. was killed while driving on a highway on the Navajo Nation after Denny had just gotten gas at the Tohatchi Giant and drove the wrong way on the highway. According to the lawsuit, Denny tested more than twice the legal limit, three hours after the crash.

A federal district court’s decision in a lawsuit by the victim’s father prompted the reason the question was presented to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

“A duty not to sell gasoline to an intoxicated person is consistent with liability for providing an intoxicated person with alcohol or a vehicle,” the Court’s majority wrote in an opinion by Justice Bacon. “Gasoline, alcohol, and the vehicle itself are all enabling instrumentalities involved in intoxicated driving. Gasoline is required to operate most vehicles today. Providing gasoline to an intoxicated driver is like providing car keys to an intoxicated driver. Accordingly, liability under negligent entrustment for the sale gasoline to an intoxicated driver is consistent with New Mexico law.”

New Mexico Supreme Court news release

The attorneys for the deacon’s family say they’re thankful for the opinion. “I think it’s a good day for New Mexico and it’s a common-sense approach to the law and I think it will help keep people safe in a way that doesn’t unduly burden commerce,” said Zackeree Kelin, Morris’ family attorney.

The case does have to be heard in district court by a judge or jury to decide if, in this case, the gas station is liable. It’s unclear under the new ruling how much investigation vendors will have to do to determine whether a person may be intoxicated.

Morris’ family is seeking damages from the gas station. They say Morris spend his last days working to translate the bible into the Navajo language. To read the decision in Morris v. Giant 4 Corners, No. S-1-SC-37997, visit the New Mexico Compilation Commission’s website.