ShareThis Page

Pennsylvania justices toss case brought by beer distributors, free gas stations to sell suds

| Tuesday, July 19, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Grocery and convenience stores that operate gas pumps will no longer have to fear their liquor licenses will be challenged in court.

The state Supreme Court has dismissed a case brought by beer distributors seeking to overturn a license for carryout beer sales by a Sheetz location in Cumberland County because the convenience store and cafe were on the same property as gas pumps.

Distributors argued the state's liquor laws prevent beer from being sold at locations that also sell gasoline or other liquid fuels.

The Liquor Control Board has approved licenses for those locations for years as long as they otherwise met the criteria for a restaurant or cafe license. A Commonwealth Court ruling upheld the LCB's decision, but distributors appealed.

“It's kind of nice, personally, because we've known from the beginning ... that what they wanted to do could be done properly in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Mark Flaherty, an attorney who represented Sheetz in this case and similar challenges.

“It makes me happy because I see friends of mine who say, ‘Isn't it wonderful (that) we can buy a six-pack in the grocery store like every other state.' The commonwealth deserves that.”

The court tossed the case after a little-noticed provision of Act 39 — the law approved in June that allows supermarkets to sell wine to go — clarified the liquor code based on previous court rulings. The ruling also spared the parties an agonizing discussion of the definition of the words “location” or “place,” the crux of the case.

Both sides acknowledged the lawsuits would become moot once Act 39 takes effect Aug. 8, said Rodrigo Diaz, chief counsel for the LCB.

“It's good to know we don't have to keep defending ourselves in court,” Diaz said. “We weren't trying to take sides (pitting) one licensee versus another. We were just trying to do our best to be consistent in our interpretation of the statute.”

Frank Pistella, vice president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association, which brought the lawsuit against Sheetz and the LCB, said the court's dismissal of the case was “a foregone conclusion.”

Pistella, who owns Pistella Beer Distributors in Friendship, said he and other distributors are turning their attention to lobbying for the right to apply for a wine permit so they, too, could sell up to four bottles of wine per person to go.

“We'd like to be a part of that, too. I'm not sure why we were left out,” he said. “We just want to give the consumers what they want.”

Attorneys representing the malt beverage association did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Gov. Tom Wolf drew attention to the issue of beer at gas stations in May when he launched his “Free the Sixpack” campaign encouraging the three-member Liquor Control Board to approve pending licenses for nine stores across the state. The LCB, which had been approving them for years, had tabled a number of license votes in recent months while it was waiting for its third board member to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Board members approved the licenses in May, which included permits to sell carryout cases of beer or malt beverages for the Exxon gas station on William Flynn Highway in Richland, Allegheny County, and the Sunoco gas station on West Pike Street in Canonsburg, Washington County.

The other seven applicants sought a different type of license that enables them to sell up to two six-packs of beer or other malt beverages.

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.