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DUI? No Problem…Just Sue the Bar!

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By Elliot Mandel on June 2, 2011


Remember the days when you were hearing about patently absurd lawsuits popping up all over the country? Like the woman in 2000 who sued Universal Studios for emotional distress and extreme fear after visiting a haunted house that was “too scary“. Or the man who sued a hospital for not preventing him from raping one of its patients. He claimed negligence on the part of the hospital for not stopping him.

Well, we may be starting back up again with a new take on justice coming from the great Garden State.

A recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court has paved the way for a drunk driver to actually sue the bar that served him. According to The Associated Press, “Wednesday’s 5-2 ruling stems from a 2006 motorcycle crash in which Frederick Voss had a blood-alcohol level of .196 percent, or nearly two and a half times the legal limit of .08 percent.”

Voss then pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, but not without suing the Tom’s River, NJ restaurant Tiffany’s for negligently serving him.

Here we are introduced to the Dram Shop Act, whereby licensed servers are liable for serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated people or minors who then cause death or injury to third parties unassociated with the liquor server.

The purpose of the law is to make bars and restaurants more aware of the intoxication of their patrons. Most states have Dram Shop Acts that protect victims of drunk drivers by making the server liable for the accident. While the law itself has changed over the years, the actual name hasn’t; legislators still use the word “dram” — as in a small unit of measure for liquid.

Next time you hit up a bar, try asking for a round of drams and see what happens.

But the ruling in New Jersey seems to be setting up a new precedent for the drivers themselves to minimize personal responsibility for their actions when intoxicated. It is a contentious point in the law how bartenders and establishments are supposed to tell when a person has had too much and their actions make the license server liable. While a bar may not be able to tell that its patron is too drunk to drive, the person himself could already know that they shouldn’t be driving. Unfortunately for the bar, if the customer gets into an accident later they could pass on responsibility.

The new ruling comes at a time when there is still not a reliable way to tell the inebriation of someone from just looking at them. According to ScienceDaily,

“People who are too impaired to drive are not typically staggering, slurring their speech, or presenting gross signs of intoxication.”

Which means there could be a disconnect in the assessment of drunkenness between the patron and the bar. This becomes a bit more of a problem when a server becomes liable for when a patron trips and falls or gets into a fight after consuming alcohol.

In the case of Showalter vs. Barilari a jury found that a bar was 75% responsible for a minor getting into a fight after consuming alcohol. Mind you, this minor had shown fake identification in the past and voluntarily got wasted at the bar. The jury didn’t mind though and decided that it was really only 25% the fault of Showalter.

With the New Jersey Supreme Court allowing Voss’s case to proceed, there could be some serious changes in the way that bars and restaurants deal with intoxicated patrons. While caution is always a good thing when it comes to alcohol consumption, there has to be a line drawn between a bar’s responsibility and you know, the person doing the drinking. We’ve seen the ill effects of lawsuits in medicine and other areas of society, let’s hope this ruling doesn’t ruin the bar.

FYI, bars don’t like getting sued for serving alcohol to customers. Or at least bars that aren’t run by lawyers looking for work.

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