Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jan 4, 2013

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An unusual legal story out of Idaho as five inmates in the Idaho State Correction Institution filed a lawsuit against alcohol companies, alleging that their intoxication led to their crimes and that they should have been warned that consuming alcohol could be addictive. 

Inmates Keith Allen Brown, Jeremy Joseph Brown, Cory Alan Baugh, Woodrow John Grant, and Steven Todd Thompson have filed the case in US District Court in early December, seeking $1 billion in damages.  Naming major breweries including Miller, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Gallo’s Winery, the plaintiffs claim that beer and wine companies should be forced to warn consumers that the alcohol they sell is habit forming an addictive.

Lawsuit Is Unlikely to Succeed

The inmates do not have a lawyer, and have drafted and filed the suit on their own.  The crimes they allege were caused by alcohol consumption include grand theft auto, drug possession, and voluntary manslaughter, leaving most of the five in prison for multiple decades.  The lawsuit alleges that each of the plaintiffs was unaware of the habit forming effects of alcohol, and as a result they became addicted to the point where they turned to a life of crime.

The alcohol companies named in the suit have not yet responded, and there has not been any action in the case since it was filed on December 10th, 2012.  The lawsuit will, in all likelihood, fail to receive serious consideration in a court of law.  Although some state recognize voluntary intoxication as a partial defense to certain crimes, a civil lawsuit shifting blame for criminal actions onto alcohol companies seems like a stretch.  The habit forming nature of alcohol is well known, and a court is not likely to proceed with the case.

Voluntary Intoxication Defense

Some states recognize a limited defense of voluntary intoxication to crimes that require the defendant’s specific intent to commit them.  Specific intent means that the defendant must have intended to commit the exact crime they committed.  Crimes like murder, theft, drug possession, and most assaults are considered specific intent because the defendant planned the desired outcome.  Voluntary intoxication can serve as a partial defense to these crimes if the defendant can show that the effect of alcohol or drugs impaired their judgment, and caused them to commit acts they did not otherwise intend.

Voluntary intoxication is not a common defense, and is not recognized in every state.  Even a defendant who successfully uses it does not avoid punishment for the crime, in large part because they are still at fault for intoxicating themselves in the first place.  The theory of blaming alcohol, or other intoxicants, for crimes is only moderately accepted in criminal law, but it is unlikely to hold much water for inmates attempting to shift blame for their actions to alcohol in a civil lawsuit. 

Ultimately, the case will likely be dismissed.  Alcohol, which is, of course, habit forming and the cause of impaired judgment, may share the blame for each of these plaintiff’s crimes, but it is unlikely they will be able to sell their claimed ignorance of its effects to a reasonable judge.