By Conrad Dudderar
OKLAHOMA CITY – A Canadian County couple has appealed to the state’s highest court challenging a ruling in a civil suit stemming from a traffic collision near Yukon that killed their teenage daughter.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court will hear an appeal filed Dec. 9 by attorneys representing the appellants, Jeffrey and Kristine Murrow.
The central issue to be decided by the state Supreme Court is the legal status of The Springs Events LLC and whether a “duty of care” is owed under the facts of this case.
“We hope no other family gets a call about their child or loved one being a victim of intoxicated driving,” Jeffrey and Kristine Morrow said this week. “We believe current Oklahoma law protects innocent people like Marissa.
“The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently decided to retain our appeal and we now wait for them to give a final answer on those legal protections.”
The Murrows’ 19-year-old daughter Marissa died from injuries sustained in a traffic collision shortly after midnight Oct. 3, 2020, on the Kilpatrick Turnpike at S.W. 15th in eastern Canadian County.
A Mustang High School valedictorian, Marissa was a sophomore at the University of Central Oklahoma studying to be a special education teacher.
Oklahoma City’s Malcolm Douglas Penney, now 41, was sentenced Feb. 1, 2022, to life in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and leaving the scene of a fatality accident.
A habitual drunk driving offender, Penney was intoxicated and driving in the wrong direction when the crash occurred.
Jeffrey and Kristine Murrow were plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Canadian County District Court against several defendants, including The Springs – an Edmond event venue where Penney drank alcohol during a wedding that he attended hours before.
Canadian County District Judge Jack D. McCurdy II on Aug. 29, 2022, filed an order granting The Springs’ motion for summary judgment in the civil case. He found the event venue was not liable under existing Oklahoma state law.
The Murrows believe The Springs was partially responsible for their daughter’s death because Penney was allowed to drink in excess at their venue before getting behind the wheel that night.
“We understand there are many event venues that are following this case to decide how they will handle alcohol for future events on their properties,” the Murrows said. “We believe these businesses should be responsible for conducting their operations properly and safely.
“The over-consumption of alcohol is a danger we all recognize and while we can’t bring Marissa back, we want to prevent more DUI victims. If current law does not protect innocent people like our daughter, then we must pursue other avenues to establish those protections, so that no one else experiences the tragedy we have.”
While the Murrows contend Oklahoma law already supports a duty of care in this case, the trial court ruled that finding a duty here would be an expansion of Oklahoma law that doesn’t currently exist.
“Therefore, the question for consideration is whether current Oklahoma law supports a duty of care for this defendant/appellee under the facts of this case,” according to the appellants’ motion. “If so, then the lower court’s decision should be reversed. If not, this this Court is the proper authority for defining a duty owed by appellee (The Springs) under the facts of this case.”
This matter involves a procedural position where a non-vendor commercial defendant breached a duty to a third party from foreseeable harm that was created by the operations and conduct allowed by the defendant business, according to the motion.
“However, the trial court could not hold for appellants on this issue because of the current ambiguities in Oklahoma law,” the document reads.
The Murrows and their attorneys are asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to affirm and define the extent of The Springs’ legal duty in light of the Court’s clear intent that state law protects “third parties from foreseeable harm from conduct of commercial actors.”
By hearing this appeal, they believe the state Supreme Court will fully and effectively clarify this issue and “remove a cloud” on the position of many corporate venues in Oklahoma.
The Murrows’ attorneys are Kevin H. Cunningham, Derrick T. DeWitt and William T. Milam III.
‘NO DUTY TO PREVENT’
Attorneys for The Springs Events LLC filed a response to the appeal petition Dec. 29 with the Oklahoma Supreme Court Clerk.
“The Springs did not furnish, sell or serve any alcohol at the event,” according to the appellee’s statement.
“Instead, per The Springs’ internal policy, alcohol was served by a third-party bartending service hired and compensated by the wedding party.”
The appellee agrees with Canadian County (retired) District Judge Jack D. McCurdy II, who found that The Springs had no duty to protect Marissa Murrow from Penney’s intoxicated acts.
Penney had four previous DUI convictions and one public drunk conviction in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana. In each DUI case, he received a suspended sentence.
Judge McCurdy found that the common law rule applied – that “a person has no duty to prevent a third person from causing a physical injury to another.”
McCurdy further determined that this “set of facts do not place this case within any of the carved-out exceptions that would impose liability” on The Springs, according to his August 2022 order.
“Appellants claim the sheer fact The Springs had alcohol policies in place created a duty to prevent any possible harm,” the Springs’ appeal response reads. “However, as the trial court recognized on summary judgment, no duty exists.
“The Springs is not a vendor of alcohol and therefore has no duty under Oklahoma law to prevent a third person from causing harm to another. Oklahoma has rejected the concept of social host liability.”
The Springs was sued for negligence in the civil action for failing to “enforce or properly implement its rules, policies, procedures and prohibitions related to the on-premises consumption of alcohol” at the Oct. 2, 2020 wedding.
The Springs allowed or directed Malcolm Penney to leave its premises despite him having consumed alcohol for “nearly 10 hours that day” and leaving intoxicated in a private motor vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
Imposing a duty based solely on the existence of internal company rules would be contract to Oklahoma public policy, the appellee’s attorneys argue in their state Supreme Court response.
“It would discourage Oklahoma companies from creating such internal policies for fear the policies would be used against them in legal proceedings. This case does not fall within any of the limited exceptions of the common rule law.”
As such, The Springs and their attorneys believe the trial court’s grant of summary judgment should be affirmed.
The Springs’ attorneys are Michael C. Felty and Eric L. Combs.