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Earlier this month, our firm settled a $925,000 case against a bar and restaurant that allegedly over-served the driver in a drunk driving accident. The story and the important message it conveys for all establishments that serve alcohol are just as interesting as the settlement amount (which pushes the total compensation for this case to more than $1,000,000). Dram shop laws – laws that allow bars and restaurants to be held liable for injuries that result from the actions of over-served patrons – are now on the books in numerous states. If bars serve visibly intoxicated patrons and something bad happens because of it, they can be held responsible.
A Night Out Takes a Tragic Turn
In April 2012, our two clients, both Air Force Sergeants, accompanied friends to the Rho Restaurant/Discotecha during the establishment’s “soft opening.” Our clients got separated from another friend as the evening went on. When they left the bar, intending to call a cab to take them home, they ran into their friend again, who offered them a ride. Our clients accepted, not knowing that their friend had drunk (and been over-served) so much alcohol that his blood alcohol concentration was well over the legal limit.
Predictably but unfortunately, the driver lost control of the car and crashed. Both passengers sustained severe injuries, including serious orthopedic injuries that required multiple surgeries and significant lacerations that left permanent scarring. The accident caused both clients to lose income and impacted their career goals as pilots with the Air Force.
Layers of Fault
This case is a perfect example of an accident in which more than one party is at fault. There were layers of careless behavior that led to the collision and the injuries that changed the lives of these young men. Whether private citizens or corporate entities, we all have a responsibility to uphold the law. When someone fails to follow this duty and endangers someone else, they should be held accountable for their part in causing harm to another person.
The driver who lost control of the vehicle failed to obey laws that restrict motorists from driving under the influence of alcohol. In every state, it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08 or higher.
This driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was more than quadruple the legal limit, at 0.332 percent. The fact that the accident happened clearly shows that he was too impaired to operate a vehicle safely. He broke the law (in fact, several of them, as police charged him with numerous violations such as Driving Under the Influence, Reckless Driving, Driving While Intoxicated, and Aggravated Assault with a Vehicle).
Though the driver was clearly at fault for the accident, he wasn’t alone. His blood alcohol level didn’t skyrocket to 0.332 percent at random. It happened because the bartenders at Rho Restaurant/Discoteca allegedly over-served him. They liberally provided this particular guest with so much alcohol that he allegedly became visibly intoxicated. After the accident, the police reviewing video footage from the bar that night could distinguish him staggering and losing his balance. Yet the bartenders continued serving him. This man’s intoxication was so pronounced that it should have been easy for well-trained staff to see the signs. He sat in a conspicuous place at the front of the bar for nearly three hours until last call. Not only was he among the last guests to leave, but the bouncers personally escorted him out of the club. By allegedly failing to call him a cab or take his keys away, the establishment allegedly turned him loose to become a danger to everyone else on the road and, ultimately, to his own passengers.
If the establishment served the driver in this accident such excessive quantities of alcohol during its “soft opening,” just imagine how wild the bar and restaurant’s official grand opening would have been.
As a company, the bar has a responsibility to follow laws that prohibit establishments from serving “a visibly intoxicated person.” Witness statements, video surveillance footage, and of course the driver’s over-the-top blood alcohol content all illustrate that this patron was visibly intoxicated. When the bar staff allegedly kept serving him instead of cutting him off, they broke the law. The bartenders’ actions constituted negligence as established by the state.
When drivers get drunk at their own homes on alcohol they bought while sober, they bear all the blame for drunk driving accidents they cause. In this case, the bar allegedly supplied the alcohol to a guest who had clearly had enough, so it shares the responsibility.
So to people who suggest that dram shop laws blame the wrong people, our reply is that everyone who breaks the law and endangers another person deserves to be held responsible for the harm they cause to others. Multiple parties – the driver, the bar staff – could have prevented this crash from happening, but none of them did, so now multiple parties should pay for the damage.