KANSAS CITY — The family of a Missouri man who died in a drunken driving crash can sue the funeral home he co-owned and his former business partners for negligence for allegedly allowing him to drive a company van despite knowing he had a drinking problem, a state appeals court panel ruled.
A three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals said Tuesday that a circuit court erred in dismissing the case filed by relatives of Scott L. Hays.
Hays had been an employee and part owner of Royer-Hays Funeral Services of Blue Springs. He was 42 in November 2008 when he drove a company van to a bar. On his way home, he died in a single-vehicle accident in eastern Jackson County.
The lawsuit claims the other owners of the business "knew or should have known" that Hays was an unsafe driver. It said there were "meetings, discussions and conferences" about Hays' drinking problem. Before the wreck, employees had to awaken Hays after he passed out drunk, the lawsuit said.
The appeals court found that if the family's claims are true, the defendants were negligent in allowing Hays to drive the van.
"We say that it is negligent to entrust a vehicle to an intoxicated person precisely because such an entrustment is likely to lead to a car accident, which is what actually occurred here," the appeals court wrote.
The appellate opinion also said that if it is proved that Hays, as co-owner, had an "equal or greater right of control" over the van, then the funeral home would prevail "as a matter of law."
Funeral home attorney Joseph J. Roper didn't immediately return a phone call Wednesday from The Associated Press. The funeral home argued previously that there is no duty under Missouri law to protect an adult from his own voluntary consumption of alcohol.
Allen Rostron, a law school professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told The Kansas City Star that it is well-established that a third party, such as the family of someone killed by a drunken driver, has the right to sue for injuries under a similar scenario. But allowing the drunken driver, or by extension, his family if he is killed, to sue for damages makes the opinion "interesting and unique," he said.
Dan Baylard, an attorney for the Hays family, said he didn't believe the ruling would "open the floodgates" for a rush of similar suits because each case would hinge on specific facts and circumstances.
He also stressed that the ruling "doesn't take Mr. Hays off the hook." Because Missouri is a "comparative fault" state, a jury can assign damages on a percentage basis, Rostron said. So even if they found Hays primarily to blame, they could still find the funeral home liable for part of the damages.