A federal judge in Alexandria ruled yesterday that Virginia tavern owners are not liable for deaths or injuries caused by persons who became intoxicated in their establishments, disagreeing with an opinion issued by another federal judge earlier this year.

U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton's ruling on the so-called dramshop liability came as he dismissed a $3 million lawsuit against Blackie's House of Beef in Springfield brought by the family of a woman killed in a 1984 car accident caused by a drunk driver. The driver had been a patron at the restaurant before the accident.

Such third-party liability can only be created by the state legislature, Hilton wrote.

In March, Hilton's colleague, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams, had ruled that dramshop liability was applicable in Virginia. That decision has been appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In that case, Williams found the U.S. government responsible for injuries suffered by a Cleveland woman left comatose as the result of a 1981 car accident caused by a drunken soldier who had been drinking at a club at Arlington Hall Station.

Williams ordered the federal government to pay the woman's family nearly $1 million in damages.

Hilton said that Williams, in a "well written and reasoned opinion," had based his ruling on a section of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverages Control Act that forbids the sale of alcohol to anyone who is already intoxicated.

But the sole legislative intent of that act "is to regulate the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages," Hilton wrote. It "does not create a cause of action against the seller of alcoholic beverages by a third party for the negligent acts of a patron."

Hilton also noted that since Williams made his ruling, at least three dramshop liability cases have been dismissed in Fairfax Circuit Court, establishing precedents that the federal courts must take into consideration.

Lawsuits for dramshop liability -- which takes its name from an 18th century word for saloon -- have become an increasingly popular weapon for groups fighting drunk driving. Almost 40 states and the District of Columbia recognize dramshop liability. In response, restaurant owners have been sponsoring programs offering taxi rides home to drunk patrons.

Local governments have moved to clamp down or at least discourage such practices as "happy hours" offering cut-rate drinks.

Hilton's decision means "that it's for the legislature to decide whether or not tavern owners should be held liable if their intoxicated patrons later injure someone," said Steve Horvath, attorney for Blackie's House of Beef.

At the time of the accident, the restaurant was called Valle's Steak House.