A recent case in Maryland upheld the legal rule that bars have no liability where they serve alcohol to clearly drunk patrons who later cause fatal injuries to others while intoxicated. At The Cochran Firm DC, we think this decision is unfortunate and we support any legislative action to protect the public's safety through dram shop liability.
In legalese, holding bars and alcohol vendors liable where they negligently serve intoxicated customers who later harm others is known as “dram shop” liability. “Dram shop” is a term used primarily by lawyers and refers to bars, taverns, and other establishments where alcoholic drinks are sold. The term “dram” is an antiquated unit of liquid volume and comes from a currency unit and weight measurement used in ancient Greece.
Earlier this summer, Maryland’s highest court held in Warr v. JMGM that bars cannot be held responsible for injuries caused by their patrons, even where bartenders continue to serve alcohol to clearly drunk patrons. In that case, bar patron Michael Eaton was served 21 alcoholic drinks at a Gaithersburg, Maryland, bar. Eaton later got in his car and struck a family’s vehicle from behind while speeding on Interstate 270, killing 10-year-old Jazimen Warr and injuring her mother. Eaton pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The girl’s grandparents sued the bar, Dogfish Head Alehouse, for serving the clearly intoxicated Eaton.
On August 21, 2008, Eaton began drinking beer and liquor at 5 p.m. and allegedly consumed 14 bottles of beer, two cocktails, and drinking another drink someone bought for him. He stopped drinking at about 10 p.m. and left the bar but later returned about 45 minutes later to order still more alcoholic drinks – this time, three beers and a tequila shot. Eaton then sped out of the bar in his Range Rover and smashed it into a Jeep on Interstate 270. According to the police report, more than a dozen empty beers were found in Eaton’s vehicle.
The 10-year-old girl’s grandparents, the Rev. William Warr Jr. and his wife Angela, filed the claim against the bar, hoping to create dram shop liability in Maryland. The Warrs alleged that Eaton was known as a habitual drunkard and Dogfish Head Ale negligent served alcohol to him, which proximately caused Jazimen Warr’s death. In a narrow 4-3 decision, Maryland’s highest court ruled that bars can serve clearly intoxicated patrons without being responsible for the harm and injuries they may cause to the public.
In her dissent, Judge Sally D. Adkins noted that 220 people die in Maryland each year due to drunk driving accidents and that 40% of accidents are caused by intoxicated drivers. The bar allegedly served him 21 alcoholic drinks “to the point of Eaton becoming violent and aggressive,” the dissent states. By serving Eaton “drink after drink after drink,” the dissent states the bar transformed him from a non-dangerous person into a dangerous person. Up to 50% of people driving under the influence drank their last alcoholic beverage at a licensed establishment and dram shop liability could change that, Judge Adkins additionally noted.
At The Cochran Firm DC, we strongly disagree with the majority’s decision. Empowering bars with the right to irresponsibly serve clearly drunk customers poor public policy. By failing to enact dram shop liability legislation, the General Assembly puts the public’s safety at serious and potentially deadly risk. Drunk driving kills thousands of Americans every year. Maryland’s Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals has declined three times to create a dram shop law - in 1951, 1981 and 2000. In 2011 and 2012, the General Assembly failed to approve bills that would have created a dram shop law.
Washington, D.C. and 43 states already hold bars and alcohol vendors liable in some cases where they serve drinks to obviously intoxicated patrons who later cause accidents. Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware are among only seven states that do not recognize dram shop liability.
It’s time to take action. The Warr family has stated their next step is asking the state legislature to enact a dram shop liability law and we support them in this effort. Studies have shown that dram shop liability leads to a general reduction of alcohol-related vehicle deaths ranging from 3.7% to 11.3%. We support this effort and hope the General Assembly will honor the Jazimen Warr’s memory by swiftly enacting a much-needed dram shop liability law.