ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Rev. William Warr will never forget the night in 2008 that a drunken driver, traveling about 88 miles per hour, slammed into the back of his car on Interstate 270 and killed his 10-year-old granddaughter, Jazimen.
The driver, Michael Eaton, was sentenced to eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. But the Warr family also wants the tavern that served him to bear part of the legal responsibility for Jazimen’s death in the crash that also injured her older sister and Warr’s wife. About 45 minutes before the crash, Eaton had left Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, where he drank about 17 beers.
The Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday in the case and will consider whether to institute dram shop liability, which would make bars and restaurants liable for customers involved in drunken-driving collisions. A ruling in favor of the Warrs could change the law.
“Something needs to be done about this law,” said Warr. “Not just for me, but for all of the families this has happened to and will continue to happen to.”
Lawyers say this is the first time in 32 years the high court has heard arguments on the issue.
Maryland is one of a few states that do not hold businesses liable for serving too much alcohol to patrons. At least 44 states and the District of Columbia have some form of dram shop laws, although they vary in their scope and in the evidence required for holding commercial hosts liable for others’ conduct.
“If ever there were a case that demonstrated a need for a change in the law this is it,” said Andrew Bederman, an attorney representing the Warr family. “If we had this type of liability, I think we would see a great reduction in drunk-driving incidents in Maryland.”
Opponents say restaurants and taverns should not be held responsible for the actions of their patrons, inebriated or otherwise.
Tavern owners argue that monitoring alcohol intake of all its customers would prove difficult.
Bob Hetherington, the attorney representing JMGM Group LLC, the owner of Dogfish Head Alehouse, argued that there is no standard for determining whether or not an individual is “visibly intoxicated.” He also said businesses should not be held liable for what happens off their premises.
“If (Eaton) had punched someone while he was still there under their control, we might be in a different situation,” said Hetherington. “But we have someone who leaves the bar and is involved in an incident almost an hour later.”
Hetherington also argued that the high court should let the legislature address taverns’ liability for drunken drivers.
“It’s not that the legislature has been silent on this issue,” Hetherington said. “The legislature has said ‘no.’ In examining the bill that emerged out of this case, the legislature still declined to adopt it.”
Many health experts side with the Warrs.
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.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the law change.
In 2010, the Warrs sued the owners of Dogfish Head Alehouse, but the case was dismissed before trial. The Warrs appealed.
The Warr family is still suffering physically from the crash. Cortavia Harris, the sister who suffered a broken hip, still cannot sit for long periods of time, and her grandfather suffers from congestive heart failure.
There is also the emotional trauma of losing a loved one.
“For me, this is about changing the law. So many families have been devastated by this type of tragedy,” said Angela Warr, William’s wife. “This is something Jazimen would go after. She was really into helping people.”
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