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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.

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