Again, slightly off topic, though the broader consequences apply in a healthcare context.

Read with interest the Editorial in the Weekend Australian yesterday about the High Court’s recent decision, with the less than informative name, C.A.L. No 14 Pty Ltd v Motor Accidents Insurance Board [2009] HCA 47.

The facts in the case were simple:

  1. the case concerned a claim of negligence against a Tasmanian hotel owner who handed back motorcycle keys lodged for safe-keeping to an insistent, belligerent patron who on leaving the pub was killed in a crash while showing a blood alcohol level of 0.253.
  2. A reading of 0.05 doubles the risk of a crash. At 0.08, the risk increases seven times. At 0.15, it is 25 times higher. Data was too scant to reliably calculate the risk at the level taken by the dead man.
  3. The man had drunk seven or eight cans of bourbon and cola between 5.15pm and 8.30pm. According to the judgment, the licensee told him he had had enough, that it was time to go home, and asked for his wife’s phone number so that she could fetch him. The patron became agitated and said "If I want you to ring my f’ing’ wife, I’d f’ing ask ya." The Licensee responded: "Whoo hang on, whoo, whoo, whoo, this is not, you know, don’t go crook at me, this is not the arrangement that was made." Not having the wife’s phone number, and not wanting to push the issue into further confrontation the licensee then gave the keys to the patron, after asking him three times if he was OK to drive

As has been widely reported (to the joy of many in the hotels industry), the High Court dismissed the claim against the publican, finding that no duty was owed to the driver that had been breached.

I accept the points made in the Australian, concerning the need for our society to accept individual choices and responsibilities.

On the other hand, when regard is had to the carnage each year on the roads due to alcohol, such ‘individual responsibility" is hardly a promising or pro-active step to saving our bright young things from self-destruction on the road.  

Quite apart from the case of habitual heavy drinkers, who has not had opportunity to intervene when friends and loved ones might out of character have had a bit much to drink and required a tap on the shoulder and gentle insistence on a lift home?  It is a consequence of intoxication that it impairs judgement, not just behind the wheel but in getting behind the wheel in the first place.

The Court’s decision seems to ignore the more complex issues behind public safety and the ‘cost’ of irresponsible alcohol sale, instead championing a self-determinant right to self-destruction (and potentially harm to innocent third parties on the road).

With respect there is much to be said of the comments in the Age, concerning this decision, which reach a very different conclusion to the Editorial in the Weekend Australian.