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Woman Wins $172,000 In Host Liability Settlement

February 21, 1985

FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) _ An accident victim has won a $172,500 settlement of a lawsuit that led to a landmark state Supreme Court ruling which said hosts can be liable for injuries caused by guests who drive away drunk.

Marie Kelly, 31, said she hopes the court battle that led to Wednesday’s settlement ″has made people more aware. If the whole thing saves one life it’s worth it.″

Her attorney, George Chamlin, said she will receive $72,500 from Joseph and Catherine Zak, who served alcohol to Donald Gwinnell, and $100,000 from Gwinnell, accused of driving an automobile that struck Ms. Kelly’s car five years ago.

After the accident, Ms. Kelly sued Gwinnell. He in turn sued the Zaks and she joined his lawsuit. Last June, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned two lower court rulings that said a host was not liable for the actions of adult guests and reinstated Ms. Kelly’s suits.

The high court said its June 27 decision imposed the same responsibility on people who entertain adults in their homes as liquor license holders and hosts who serve alcohol to minors.

The justices cited ″society’s extreme concern about drunken driving″ in making the ruling and said the need to deter intoxicated motorists and compensate their victims outweighs any interference with social behavior.

The decision made New Jersey the only state that permits such negligence suits, the court said.A 1979 Oregon state law permits hosts to be sued for negligence only if the guest is visibly intoxicated. In other states, courts have thrown out similar lawsuits or legislatures have barred them.

The New Jersey ruling does not apply to situations in which there are many guests at a party, when guests serve each other, when a host is busy with other responsiblities and is not serving the liquor or when the host is drunk.

The trial stemming from Ms. Kelly’s lawsuits began Wednesday in Superior Court in Monmouth County but was cut short by the settlement.

Ms. Kelly, a Fort Monmouth personnel clerk, suffered a broken ankle that has required several surgical operations and a broken jaw and lost six teeth in the Jan. 11, 1980, accident in Eatontown.

A blood test showed Gwinnell was legally intoxicated when the accident occurred 11/2 miles from the Zaks’ house shortly before 9 p.m.

Chamlin said in opening arguments that the Zaks had served Gwinnell at least 13 drinks of scotch in 90 minutes the day of the accident.

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