WASHINGTON, July 28, 2013 — Maryland’s high court his week issued a ruling affirming current laws that do not hold bars responsible for over-serving patrons.
The Rev. William Warr and his family will forever mourn the loss of his 10-year old granddaughter, Jazimen. One night in 2008 a drunken driver traveling close to 100 miles per hour slammed into the back of Warr’s Jeep on Maryland’s Interstate 270 and killed his Jazimen and injured her older sister and Warr’s wife.
The driver, Michael Eaton, is now serving eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. But the Reverend’s family wants the bar that served Eaton over 17 beers that night to take part in the legal responsibility for Jazimen’s death.
Maryland is one of the few states that do not hold businesses liable for serving too much alcohol to patrons. Most states, 44, and the District of Columbia have some form of dram shop laws, although the scope and the evidence required for holding commercial hosts liable varies.
Maryland’s legislators have resisted making bar owners responsible, even when their bartenders serve individuals who are clearly intoxicated. Advocates hoped the Warr lawsuit will be the impetus for Maryland’s high court to change Maryland law.
Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Maryland’s high court ruled this past week that the bar had no responsibility. The majority opinion stated that it was up to the legislature, not the court, to change Maryland’s law. A Maryland attorney’s blog came out quickly after the opinion was published, and it was titled “We Can Still Serve Drunks in Maryland Who We Think Might Kill Someone and That’s Okay.”
Even if weak on this issue, Maryland’s high court is consistent. In a drunk driver case they decided in 2010, the Maryland Court declined to find dram shop liability. The hope in this case nonethelss came from the Court’s prior minority. A dissenting opinion then stated in part:
“The stated purpose behind many dram shop acts is to provide innocent parties with a cause of action against those persons who are in the best position to prevent the tortfeasor’s intoxication, namely, the providers of the alcohol. By placing the burden of economic loss on the vendors of alcohol, the dram shop act provides an extremely effective incentive for those vendors to do everything in their power to avoid making illegal sales, and at the same time it provides a remedy to members of the public who are injured as a result of illegal liquor sales.”
Here is part of Judge Adkins dissenting opinion in the Warr case:
“an average of 220 people die annually as a result of impaired driving-related crashes on Maryland roads … . This equates to 18 deaths a month or a death every 40 hours” and 40% of the accidents in this state are caused by drunk drivers… up to 50% of people driving under the influence had their last drinks at licensed establishments.
Most states have Dram Shop and Social Host Laws that make retail establishments (bars and restaurants) that serve alcohol to obviously intoxicated patrons liable for the injuries that result from the crashes the intoxicated patron causes. Social laws hold the host responsible for serving our guests alcohol when they have clearly “had too much.”
Draw Shop laws are desireable from both a public policy and a safety perspective.
According to the Community Preventive Services Task Force, an independent body of public health and prevention experts appointed by the Centers for Disease Control, holding alcohol retailers liable for injuries or damage done by their intoxicated customers can reduce motor vehicle deaths, homicides, injuries and other alcohol-related problems.
Dram Shop laws reduce alcohol-related crashes. Texas saw a 6.5% decrease in alcohol related crashes immediately after a liability case was filed in 1983, and another 5.3% decrease when a second case was filed in 1984. In 2001 researchers found a 5.8% decrease in fatal collisions from Dram Shop liability laws.
Other studies have found similar deterrent effects from Dram Shop laws by 3-5%. The reason for the decrease is tied to the economic interest of the serving establishment. By including them as potentially responsible parties, they adopt more responsible serving practices.
Studies also show that where Dram Shop laws exist, publicity about the impact of over-serving increases, and more establishments adopt best practices.
“Happy Hours” and low price drink promotions are fewer in states with Dram Shop laws.
Excessive alcohol consumption in a limited time period is a factor in increased intoxication. There are decreased “two-for-one” type promotions in Dram Shop states and this practice decreases intoxication.
Retailers in Dram Shop states check age identification more, meaning fewer minors are able to drink illegally.
Even if laws do not make bars legally responsible if their drunken patron kills somebody by driving a car after being served too much liquor, the bar is still morally responsible.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics. Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, in Washington, D.C., on the Andy Parks show, the featured legal analyst for America’s Radio News Network, heard in 165 markets nationwide, and he is a columnist on the Washington Times Communities.
His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.
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