Missouri court: Family of deceased drunk driver can sue employer for letting him drive

The family of a deceased Jackson County man can sue his employer for allowing him to drive while drunk, the Missouri Court of Appeals decided Thursday. "A jury will be better equipped than we are to determine whether anyone, apart from Hays himself, can be said to be at fault for his death," the ruling said.

According to the Kansas City Star, the appellate court ruled in favor of the family of Scott L. Hays, 42, who died in a single-vehicle accident on November 2, 2008. The ruling allows the Hays family to pursue a lawsuit against Royer-Hays Funeral Services, a Blue Springs business that Hays co-owned.

On the evening of his death, Hays drove a company vehicle to a local bar and later crashed on his way home. The lawsuit says the other owners of Royer-Hays "knew or should have known" that Hays was an unsafe driver; that they knew Hays "would habitually keep and consume alcohol while operating"; that they participated in "meetings, discussions and conferences" related to Hays' problem with alcohol. Immediately prior to the accident, employees had to wake up Hays, who was passed out, and tell him to drive home.

When someone is killed in a drunk driving accident, the law clearly permits that person's family to sue the drunk driver for damages. In this case, however, Hays is the drunk driver that caused his own death, so allowing his family to seek damages is a different matter. Originally, a Jackson County judge dismissed the suit, but the appellate court overturned that verdict, finding that the Hays family should be allowed to proceed to trial. If the Hays family's allegations are true, the court said, then the other owners of the company were negligent in allowing Hays to drive home in the van.

Missouri is a pure comparative fault state. This means a car accident victim can recover damages even if he is partially responsible for the accident. However, those damages will be reduced according his percentage of fault. For example, if the victim is 25% responsible for the accident, he can only collect 75% of the amount he is suing for. At trial, a jury could determine that Hays is partially responsible for his own death, but that Royer-Hays Funeral Service is also partially liable.

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