Product Liability Alert: Alcoholic Beverage Manufacturer Not Immune From Liability under Civil Code or Dram Shop Statutes

In Fiorini v. City Brewing Co., LLC (No. F067046, filed 11/6/2014), the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District held the manufacturer of an alcoholic beverage, mixed with high concentrations of caffeine, was not immune to claims of strict liability and negligence brought by a consumer who was shot by police after consuming two cans of the beverage.

Defendant, City Brewing Company, LLC (“City Brewing”), brewed, bottled and labeled Four Loko alcoholic beverages. Ron Fiorini (“Fiorini”) was a 23-year old college student at Fresno Pacific University. On October 5, 2010, Fiorini purchased two cans of Four Loko and beer. After consuming the two cans of Four Loko and some beer, Fiorini began to act irritated, agitated and disoriented. Fiorini left the apartment where he and his friends had been, and drove home. When he arrived, he exhibited unusual behavior. He made statements to his roommates that there was an “impending riot” and that “they’re coming to get us.” He then became extremely disoriented, excited, agitated and paranoid.

Fiorini retrieved his shotgun and began firing at objects leaning against a fence outside the home. Fiorini told roommates to stay in the house because “they” were coming to get him. His roommates called the police. Police officers arrived on scene and Fiorini went onto the front porch with the shotgun resting on his shoulder. Police opened fire and killed Fiorini.

Fiorini’s father filed suit against City Brewing, alleging negligence and strict liability. Plaintiff contended the manufacturing, labeling and distribution of Four Loko was unsafe and inherently dangerous for consumption for foreseeable consumers. He further alleged Four Loko was defective and unreasonably dangerous.

City Brewing moved for Judgment on the Pleadings, claiming Plaintiff’s causes of action were barred by immunity under: (1) California Business & Professions Code § 25602; and (2) California Civil Code § 1714. City Brewing further contended Civil Code § 1714.45 insulated it from liability. The trial court granted the Motion, and Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding neither of the statutory immunities could be sustained by City Brewing, and that Plaintiff’s complaint sufficiently alleged the product was adulterated, such that the protections of Civil Code 1714.45 would not insulate City Brewing from liability.

Business & Professions Code § 25602(a) states that the selling, giving, or furnishing of an alcoholic beverage to certain persons is a misdemeanor. Section 25602(b) creates a civil immunity for persons who have supplied an “alcoholic beverage pursuant to subdivision (a).” The Court of Appeal held the immunity did not apply to City Brewing because it did not sell, give or furnish the Four Loko beverages to Fiorini.

Civil Code § 1714(b) reinstated the common law rule immunizing (from civil liability) those persons who furnish alcoholic beverages to an individual who then injures himself or others as a result of intoxication. The issue was whether City Brewing “furnished” the cans of Four Loko to Fiorini, within the meaning of the statute. The Court ultimately held City Brewing had not furnished the beverages to Fiorini, and therefore was not immunized from liability. The Court reasoned that the term “furnish” does not encompass the entire chain of supply of a product. The Court concluded “furnishing” includes only “transfers at the end of the chain of supply.”

Civil Code § 1714.45 insulates a manufacturer or seller from liability where the product is inherently unsafe, is known to be unsafe by the ordinary consumer with ordinary knowledge common to the community, and where the product is a common consumer product, “such as sugar, castor oil, alcohol, and butter…” (Emphasis added). The Court held this statute did not insulate City Brewing from liability because Plaintiff alleged that City Brewing had adulterated and contaminated the “common consumer product” (i.e. alcohol) in a manner which made the product unreasonably dangerous. Thus, the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings was erroneously granted.

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November 11, 2014