Gas stations have a legal obligation not to sell fuel to drivers who are believed to be intoxicated, the New Mexico Supreme Court said Monday in a decision that could have far-reaching effects on businesses. Only one other state applies a similarly strict law.

The divided court outlined a precedent-setting ruling that raises the implication that not only gasoline merchants but other types of businesses — from auto parts stores and tire shops to mechanics — could be on the hook for ensuring they don’t sell products to people who then drive drunk.

The decision notes only one other state — Tennessee — enforces its law in such a way to create a “duty of care” for businesses to refrain from supplying fuel to drunken drivers because of the risk of driving while intoxicated.

The ruling came in response to a request from a federal appeals court to resolve a question of state law concerning the potential liability of a retailer that sold gasoline to an intoxicated driver in 2011. 

After refueling and returning to the highway, that driver crossed the center line and crashed into an oncoming vehicle, killing a person.

Under the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, the owners of potentially dangerous goods have a responsibility to supply those goods only to someone competent to safely use them. 

New Mexico courts have recognized in past decisions that the owner of a vehicle who entrusts an intoxicated person to drive it may be liable for injuries caused by the drunken driving.

While New Mexico has no law that would prohibit the sale of gasoline to intoxicated drivers, the court’s majority wrote that a duty not to sell gasoline to someone who is drunk is consistent with liability for giving that person alcohol or a vehicle.

“Gasoline is required to operate most vehicles today. Providing gasoline to an intoxicated driver is like providing car keys to an intoxicated driver,” the majority wrote.

The court reviewed past legal precedents, statutes and other principles of law in reaching its decision. The majority noted the New Mexico Legislature this year prohibited the sale of hard liquor at convenience store gas stations in one county. State law also holds businesses and others liable for selling or serving alcohol to intoxicated people.

In her dissenting opinion, now-retired Justice Barbara Vigil wrote that selling or serving alcohol is regulated and that laws don’t warrant extending liability for drunken driving to retail sales of nonalcoholic goods.

She noted that “this sea change in the law could have far-reaching consequences for retail businesses” — from auto parts stores and tire shops to mechanics and others who will be left guessing as to whether they are subject to the new duty.

Vigil added that it’s unclear how much investigation gas stations will have to do to determine whether a person may be intoxicated when trying to refuel a vehicle, particularly when many drivers pay at the pump rather than dealing with a worker inside.

(10) comments

Alexander Jack

This is another one of thoes feel good bills that is next to impossible to enforce and not the responsibility of the Gas station owner to monitor. Most people fill their cars at the pump and have no interaction with the person in the store so unless the person is so intoxicated that they cant get the filler into the tank no one would know. Secondly nothing is stopping some one from filling up then driving off to drink. It will be funny to see what happens when these cases end up in court because all they are doing is holding the the innocent accountable but that's on par for liberal feel good laws across the board.

Spencer Ralston

I agree with the comments that this is a ridiculous unenforceable law - but it’ll be great for attorneys. Now I wonder if this precedent will soon apply to gun shops and private gun sellers.

Khal Spencer

That is actually being tried in the Newtown case and in NYS where Cuomo just signed a bill trying to do an end run around PLCAA. That said, each sale of a firearm in New Mexico, whether from a gun shop or a private sale executed through an FFL holder as required by law, is accompanied by a Form 4473 certified by the NICS system (FBI) saying it is the opinion of the U.S. Government to proceed with the sale.

I guess someone would have to sue Uncle Sam, since Uncle Sam approved the transfer.

Alexandra Lynch

Am I the only person in NM who pumps their own gas and pays at the pump? I have no interaction with employees of the gas station. I guess if I passed out and fell down at the pump they would notice and think I might be intoxicated. This law is ridiculous.

Chris Mechels

This simply demonstrates the incompetence of the NM Supreme Court, which has a long history of stupid, and political, decisions. One in particular undercut the NM Safe Pursuit Act, and led to our continued failure to enforce that act. Our current Governor is part of the problem.

Cleve Spence

A better solution stop selling liquor at gas stations! A totally insane, stupid policy!

Khal Spencer

Given every station I use all the way from Albuquerque to Los Alamos is self-serve, its not clear to me how this insane ruling will be implemented. Breathalyzers at every pump? These justices just added a user fee to the price of gas and guess who pays?

Carol Adams

Right on khal

Khal Spencer

Also, since a tank of gas lasts hundreds of miles in most cars, its possible for someone to gas up, then drive to a bar or party and get wasted. The gas was sold to a sober person who then got drunk. Now what? Does the gas station have to keep records that it certified the person was sober when he pulled up to the pump?

Negligent entrustment is nice in theory, but has narrow application. There is a reason most states don't do this.

LeRoy Sanchez

So true!

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