ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — If a bar or tavern serves a customer 20 alcoholic drinks, and that customer later kills or injures someone in their intoxicated state, should the establishment be held liable?
Not as long as the patron is off-premises when the injury occurs, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled today.
The opinion stems from a case brought by the family of 10-year-old Jazimen Warr, who was killed when a drunk driver, traveling about 88 miles per hour on Interstate 270, slammed into the back of the car she was riding in.
The driver, Michael Eaton, was sentenced to eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter. But the Warr family also wanted the bar that served him to bear part of the legal responsibility for her death in the crash. About 45 minutes before the collision, Eaton left Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, where his $107 tab included 17 beers and three liquor drinks, according to a Washington Post report.
“Something needs to be done about this law,” The Rev. William Warr, Jazimen’s grandfather, said prior to the issuance of the opinion. “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, as they are called, 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,” Andrew Bederman, an attorney representing the Warr family, has said. “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.
Many health experts, however, 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.
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