The state’s highest court recently ruled on a lawsuit involving dram shop laws, an issue that has been hotly debated for the last few decades. In essence, dram shop laws refer to the liability of bars and restaurants for the actions of their patrons. A state with dram shop laws provides a third party with a legal right to sue a bar or restaurant, which has continued to serve a patron that is visibly drunk, if the patron causes some sort of injury to the third party. Dram shop is simply a traditional term for any establishment that sells alcohol. These laws typically apply to DUI accidents involving serious injury or death. Currently there are 43 states with some sort of dram shop statute, but both the Maryland Legislature and the Courts have not been inclined to follow the majority on this issue, with neighboring Virginia and Delaware sharing the same view. Numerous bills have been proposed over the years, but none has ended up on the governor’s desk for a signature, and the state’s highest court has never upheld a civil action against a bar or tavern for an act of a patron that occurred outside the establishment.
The latest high court decision was an appeal on a 2008 case, in which a bar patron allegedly drank 17 beers along with several tequila shots, and then left the bar in his SUV. Minutes after leaving the patron slammed into the back of another car on Interstate 270, killing a ten year old passenger. The bar patron was convicted of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. In April of 2009 he pled guilty and was sentenced to 8 years in prison followed by 5 years of probation. The defense filed various motions after sentencing in an effort to convince the judge to reduce or modify the sentence, but thus far these attempts have been unsuccessful. So while the criminal case had long since been disposed, the civil suit for monetary damages was not final until just last week.
The arguments for and against dram shop laws are well documented, and tragic incidents such as the death on an innocent 10 year old will keep the debate ongoing. Supporters argue that dram shop laws will force bar owners and their employees to think twice about whom they are serving, and will decrease DUI incidents that could otherwise be prevented. Detractors of the laws argue that it is nearly impossible for a bartender to know whether a person whom they have never met is legally intoxicated and unable to drive a motor vehicle. The notion that anyone who is legally drunk will slur nonsense as they stumble out of the bar is simply illogical. Each person reacts to the effects of alcohol differently and any patron who is so visibly intoxicated to the point of not being able to function is highly unlikely to be served in the first place. Dram shop laws will not prevent death and serious injury from DUI, as personal responsibility and education are still the best means of prevention. In addition, advocates of dram shop laws are often insurance company lobbyists who stand to profit millions due to the extra coverage that bars and restaurants will be forced to carry. The Blog will update if a dram shop law gains any steam in the next legislative session, but based on this recent high court decision this is unlikely.
Benjamin Herbst is a DUI manslaughter lawyer who handles any type of drug and alcohol criminal case. Contact Benjamin at The Herbst Firm for a free consultation.