A Santa Rosa judge Wednesday tentatively ruled in favor of Safeway in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a 22-year-old Calistoga native who was killed in a crash by a teenage drunken driver after beer was bought at a Safeway store.
Judge Elliot Daum ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove that Dylan Morse, who was 18 at the time, was "obviously intoxicated" when he and Sonoma State University student Ryne Spitzer, 19, purchased a 12-pack from a Safeway on Feb. 14, 2009.
Since his condition was not apparent to store employees, Safeway is immune from civil liability stemming from the subsequent crash because Spitzer was the one who actually purchased the beer, Daum said.
"At most, plaintiffs point to the fact that Dylan Morse ingested alcoholic beverages before and at a party starting 4-1/2 hours before Ryne Spitzer bought beer," Daum said. "On these facts, the court cannot reasonably infer that Dylan Morse was obviously intoxicated."
Prosecutors said the purchase came near the end of a night of drinking for Morse, the son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse, and his childhood friend Spitzer, who was a sophomore at the university.
After they left Safeway, an intoxicated Morse ran a red light at the intersection of Stony Point Road and Highway 116, killing art student Alex Ruiz and injuring his friend, then 25-year-old Vanessa King.
Spitzer, Morse's passenger, suffered severe brain injuries. Morse pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
Before criminal proceedings were concluded, Ruiz's family and King filed a civil suit, in part alleging Safeway was liable for the death because the store supplied Morse and Spitzer with alcohol.
Patrick Emery, an attorney for the Ruiz family, said in oral arguments Wednesday that at least three people at Spitzer's dormitory commented on Spitzer's drunkenness and that the store clerk who sold Spitzer the beer with a fake ID should have noticed it, too.
Emery dismissed Safeway's argument that the store wasn't liable because it sold to Spitzer not Morse, saying both were together and it was clear they were both intending to drink the beer.
"These guys were hammered and everyone knew it," Emery said.
He urged Daum to allow the case to go before a jury on May 20.
However, lawyers for Safeway, in their motion for summary judgment, argued store employees are not obligated to determine who a customer might give alcohol to.
Attorney John Dahlberg said although Morse and Spitzer were in the checkout line together, Morse was talking on a cell phone while Spitzer made the transaction.
"The checker has to focus on the person in front of her," Dahlberg said.
Daum took the arguments under submission and will issue a final ruling within 90 days.