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Court finds distiller liable in death.

A Texas state court jury last week found Brown-Forman Corp., a tequila distiller, partially liable in the death of a college student, who died of alcohol poisoning in 1983.

The district court found Brown-Forman 35-percent liable for Marie Brinkmyer's alcohol overdose when she was a college freshman. The court held Brinkmyer 65-percent liable.

Jurors awarded $1.5 million to Joyce Brune of Orange Grove, Texas, the girl's mother.

Brown-Forman issued a statement saying that "individuals must accept full responsibility for their own actions. This case involves a tragic accident, but we believe the young woman herself was responsible for it."

Brown-Forman imports Pepe Lopez from Mexico and also markets brands such as Jack Daniel's, Southern Comfort, Korbel Champagne and Canadian Mist.

Specialists who track product liability cases said this verdict the first to go against a company involving the labeling of alcohol beverages. The jury found that Brown-Forman had failed to adequately warn about the dangers of overconsumption of its product. Brinkmyer died before the federal law was passed requiring warning labels on alcohol.

Although that law may limit the number of cases based on the Brinkmyer decision, factors arose that might indicate just the opposite.

James Ragan, the attorney who argued against Brown-Forman, produced government studies showing that few people, particularly those aged 15-25, know they can die from alcohol overconsumption. "If people are unaware of the risk of acute alcohol poisoning," Ragan said, "alcohol is unreasonably dangerous in the absence of warning and some instruction on how to use the product."

John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor specializing in product-liability, noted this case "opens the door to potential liability for manufacturers of alcoholic beverages."

"When a product has been held liable on any grounds," Banzhaf said, "that tends to make it likely that they could be held liable on any grounds, like marketing to kids below a certain age, or strict product liability issues."

A similar case, brought by an Illinois man against G. Heileman Brewing Co. in 1986, was thrown out of federal court, which rejected the assertion that the man had become addicted to alcohol due to the brewer's failure to put warning labels on its products.
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Title Annotation:Brown-Forman Corp.; Marie Brinkmyer's alcohol overdose
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Oct 12, 1992
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