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Valet Service in Pennsylvania Has No Duty to Withhold Keys from Visibly Intoxicated Driver

July 22, 2014

What are a valet’s obligations when a customer shows up drunk and requests the return of his vehicle? In Pennsylvania, the answer appears to be that the valet not only has no duty to withhold the keys but is also required to turn them over upon demand.

On June 24, 2014, a divided panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, deciding an issue of the first impression in Pennsylvania, held that a valet service has no duty to prevent an intoxicated patron from driving his car by refusing to hand over the patron’s car keys.

Faye Moranko, administrator of the estate of her son, Richard Moranko, instituted a wrongful death and survival action against the Mohegan Sun Casino, alleging that the decedent had consumed “copious amounts of alcohol” while at the Mohegan Sun, and thereafter retrieved his vehicle from casino’s valet service, despite being visibly intoxicated. He was later involved in an automobile accident resulting in his death. Moranko alleged that the Mohegan Sun was negligent in serving the driver alcoholic beverages and in handing over the keys to his vehicle when he was visibly intoxicated.

After discovery, the casino filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiff had failed to produce evidence that it served alcoholic beverages to decedent while he was visibly intoxicated, and that there was no cause of action in Pennsylvania allowing recovery against a valet service for giving a visibly intoxicated customer the keys to his vehicle. The trial court granted the casino’s motion and the plaintiff appealed.

At the outset, the Superior Court found that there was no evidence in the record that supported a claim that the Mohegan Sun served alcohol to the driver while he was at the casino prior to the accident. The court then determined that Pennsylvania law did not impose a duty on Mohegan Sun and its valet serves to withhold the keys to a vehicle if the owner appears visibly intoxicated.

The court analyzed the issue under the Pennsylvania law of bailment, noting that under Pennsylvania law, a mutual bailment is created where a valet service accepts possession of a patron’s keys and parks the vehicle as a service to those gambling on the casino’s premises.

The court opined that the Mohegan Sun, as bailee, was duty-bound to surrender control of the vehicle when it was demanded, notwithstanding the driver’s alleged intoxication. When the driver requested the return of the car, the Mohegan Sun as bailee lost the right to control the car. As the casino had no right to control, the court determined it could not be held liable for the decedent’s actions when the car was returned to the driver’s possession. “While we sympathize greatly with Moranko’s loss, we cannot find that, as a matter of law, Mohegan Sun had the power, let alone the duty, to withhold the decedent’s keys.”

Under this decision, not only does a valet service (or another bailee, such as an auto repair shop) not have a duty to withhold a vehicle’s keys from a visibly intoxicated owner, it also has the legal obligation to hand the keys over under the law of bailment. And while this case involved an intoxicated driver who injured only himself, the court’s reliance on the obligations of the valet service under the law of bailment would also seem to foreclose any obligation under §324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts to third parties injured by a drunk driver who was handed his keys by a valet service while visibly intoxicated.

Consider the dilemma that could arise where a casino does, in fact, serve a visibly intoxicated person, realizes its mistake before the patron leaves the casino, but then is confronted with a situation where the intoxicated patron demands his car keys from its valet. From a risk management standpoint, and in that situation, would it make more sense for the casino to risk whatever damages may result from a breach of bailment claim, as opposed to the damages they may be exposed to as a result of a potential wrongful death claim?

Moranko v. Downs Racing LP, 2014 PA Super 128, No.192 MDA 2013 (June 24, 2014).