Valets Must Return Cars…Even to Intoxicated Owners

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The appellate court in Naples, Florida found that valet companies must return vehicles in their possession to rightful owners, even if the vehicle owner is visibly intoxicated. Valet companies have this obligation because car owners place their cars in the possession of a valet parking attendant, but car owners do not give the parking attendant rights to the car that would be superior to the car owner’s rights to the car. If a parking attendant refuses to return an owner’s car for any reason, the parking attendant would be asserting a right of control over the car that would be against the owner’s superior right of control over the car.
This decision is a heavy blow to a deceased woman’s estate that sued the valet service and nightclub for wrongful death under the theory of negligent entrustment. Now deceased Michael Price, Jr. turned his car over for valet service at a Naples nightclub. He was accompanied by Nicole Weber. By the time Price and Weber were ready to leave the nightclub that evening, Price was visibly intoxicated; but the valet service brought him his car and handed him his keys anyway. Price and Weber were later involved in an accident that left them both dead. The court used the reasoning mentioned above to strike down the negligent entrustment claim.
Florida’s Dram Shop Statute, however, may still apply. Florida law provides limited recourse against a person or business who served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, if that person then causes someone injury. “Dram Shop Laws” refer to state laws that allow such claims under various circumstances. Florida’s laws are more restrictive than many states, only allowing an injured person to claim damages from a bar or party host under certain circumstances.
A person or business who serves alcohol to a minor, defined as someone under the legal drinking age of 21, is liable for damages that the minor causes while driving drunk. This is a strict liability standard in Florida; that means it does not matter if the server knew the person was under 21.
Florida courts have also said that a person or business could be liable for damages caused by a drunk driver if they serve alcohol to someone they know has an ongoing addiction to alcohol. Courts have reasoned that a person or business who knows another person cannot behave responsibly with regard to alcohol should be liable for damages caused if they serve alcohol to that person. Florida’s courts, however, have not always applied this rule evenly. If Weber’s estate is to succeed on any claim for wrongful death against the nightclub, it will be through this statute.