Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fiorini v. City Brewing Co. (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 6, 2014)

The first line of this opinion reads:  "Ron A. Fiorini (Fiorini), a 23-year-old college student at Fresno Pacific University, was shot to death by police on October 5, 2010. . . ."  So you already know what the suit is about, right?  Particularly timely given the current disputes in Ferguson, New York, etc.

Wrong.  Look again at the title of this post.  And I'll complete the first sentence:  ". . . after drinking two 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko."

Now you know where it's going, right?  Yep.  "Fiorini’s father, Brett Fiorini (plaintiff), sued City Brewing Company, LLC (City Brewing), the company that brewed, bottled, and labeled Four Loko, for negligence and strict liability."

Seriously?  No way he's going to win that lawsuit, right?  You can't sue Corona for getting you killed (or sunburned), can you?

Well, wait a minute.  Four Loko ain't exactly Corona Light.  Check out the next two sentences of the opinion:  "He alleged a single can of Four Loko contained as much alcohol as five to six 12-ounce cans of beer and as much caffeine as approximately four cans of Coca-Cola. He also alleged that combining alcohol, a depressant, with caffeine and other stimulants created a product that had unreasonably dangerous propensities because it masked the intoxicating effect of the alcohol and increased the risk of violent and other high-risk behavior."

Okay.  So not good.  But it's a legal product.  Not like it's methamphetamine.  Maybe the police are liable.  Maybe the deceased is responsible.  But surely not the brewer, right?

That's indeed what the defendant said.  Next sentence:  "City Brewing moved for judgment on the pleadings, contending that the proximate cause of an alcohol-related injury was the consumption of the intoxicating beverage, not the manufacture and sale of the beverage."

Result?  Next sentence:  "The trial court granted the motion, concluding City Brewing was protected by the civil immunity in California’s dram shop statutes because (1) Four Loko was fit for beverage purposes, and (2) City Brewing furnished the beverage to Fiorini."

Simple enough.  The Court of Appeal will surely affirm, right?  No way we're going to expand liability this far.  Even for a crazy mix of alcohol and caffeine.

Next three paragraphs:

"We must determine whether the civil immunity provided by California’s dram shop statutes protects the manufacturer of Four Loko from liability for injuries to consumers. The immunity applies to persons who furnish alcoholic beverages to the individuals who drink them. Prior cases have interpreted “furnish” to require the defendant to have some control of the alcohol and to take an affirmative step to supply it to the consumer. Here, the complaint does not allege City Brewing (1) exercised any control over the cans of Four Loko after they were delivered to a regional distributor or
(2) took an affirmative step to supply the Four Loko to Fiorini. Therefore, we conclude City Brewing did not “furnish” the beverage to Fiorini and, therefore, the civil immunity in California’s dram shop statutes do not extend to City Brewing.

In addition, judgment on the pleadings cannot be upheld based on the statutory immunity that bars product liability claims for certain inherently unsafe common consumer products. (Civ. Code, § 1714. 45, subd. (a).) That statute lists alcohol as such a product, but plaintiff has alleged Four Loko was unreasonably dangerous due to the combination of high levels of alcohol and stimulants and the risk posed by stimulants that mask the intoxicating effect of the alcohol. The allegations about the interactive effect of Four Loko’s ingredients preclude us from finding, as a matter of law, that Four Loko’s combination of alcohol and stimulants constitutes a “common consumer product” within the meaning of Civil Code section 1714.45, subdivision (a)(2).

Therefore, the judgment must be reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for further proceedings."

Read the remaining 23 pages for more details.  But the net effect is that plaintiff's lawsuit goes forward.

Fascinating stuff.