Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have “dram shop” laws on the books. The name comes from England where a “Dram Shop” used to sell gin to customers by the spoonful or “dram.” These laws state that businesses or individuals who serve alcohol to “visibly intoxicated persons” are legally responsible for any damage those persons might cause. While each state’s laws are different as to what level of responsibility a business or individual has, the basic legal concept is that if you serve someone alcohol who is already drunk and they cause damage you are in part responsible for that damage.
By far the highest uses of this is after a serious auto accident is caused by a drunk driver. If the victims of the accident can prove in a court of law that the bar or individual serving alcohol was still serving the driver after they were visibly intoxicated then they can be found culpable and sued for civil damages. While drunk driving is the most common use of these laws they are not the only way to use this law. If a drunk customer or party guest were to cause property damage or assault someone these laws are still applicable.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last week that within the state a bar is not responsible for the actions of its patrons once they leave the bar’s property. The opinion, released on July 25th, was the ruling from a case where driver, Michael Eaton, killed 10-year-old Jazimen Warr when he crashed into the rear of the car she was riding in at 88 miles per hour.
Mr Eaton was drinking at Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg where he had purchased 17 beers and three liquor shots. He apparently left the bar and about 45 minutes later rear-ended Jazimen Warr’s vehicle killing the girl.n While Mr. Eaton will be serving eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter the Warr family expressed frustration that the Alehouse that served him so many drinks will not also be responsible.
This has sparked debate within Maryland as to whether the Maryland legislature should modify existing law to more closely parallel laws in other states. By sharing culpability between bar and drinking it acts as a counter balance to the very obvious and real incentive for bars to serve another drink (or two or three or seventeen) to the already inebriated. Thus helping bars encourage responsible drinking in their patrons.
Critics of any change in existing statute claim that the definition of visually intoxicated person is not universal but instead fuzzy and fraught with subjective judgment. Pennsylvania’s own definition is not based on blood alcohol content or number of drinks but instead bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and/or staggering. Which are effects that present differently in each drinker at different levels of blood alcohol content.
The debate is not an easy one to decide. Should businesses be responsible for the actions their customers take after leaving their stores? Should gun shops be liable if their customers go out and immediately rob a bank or murder someone? Should a car dealership be responsible if a customer leaves the lot only to run down the first pedestrian they see? Should the pharmacy be responsible if that one customer buying all that cold medicine is making and selling crystal meth?
On the other hand if a customer’s car is in the parking lot and they are working on their 17th beer of the night should the bar management stop serving such a customer? Should they ensure they have a designated driver or take a cab when they leave?
This isn’t an easy thing to decide and as a Pennsylvanian who hosts party with alcohol it is frightening to think that if a party guest were to leave and drive home drunk that I could be held responsible for whatever damage they might cause. But at the same time whether Pennsylvania has a dram shop law or not I think most hosts want their guests to get home safely without the legal motivations.
While it is the right thing to do to make sure the stumbling drunk gets home safely, dram shop laws are attempting to make it cheaper for a bar or individual to send them home via taxi than to risk being sued if they don’t. And punitive, monetary incentives can be wildly effective.
I find myself personally torn on the issue. While I like the idea of encouraging designated drivers, bars cutting off the clearly drunk, and perhaps calling cabs more often I don’t like that someone choosing to be irresponsible nearly an hour after leaving a business or home is my responsibility. If I drive home a drunk friend and put him to bed and as soon as I’m gone he gets up, hops in the car to grab a pack of cigarettes, and drives into someone’s home I don’t see that as my fault.
I do think Maryland’s legislature could find a happy legal medium. I don’t know of any Pennsylvania cases where the dram shop law was excessively misused.
What are your thoughts on these dram shop laws? Are they good for drinkers, bars, and potential victims or are they a dictatorial power grab by an authoritarian nanny state? Let us know in the comments!