Court Hears Dram Shop Appeal; Third-Party Liability Case Heard

BERLIN — The Maryland Court of Appeals heard testimony this week in a potentially landmark case that could ultimately hold restaurants and bars in the state liable for the actions of their intoxicated patrons.

The state’s highest court on Tuesday heard an appeal in the latest attempt to add Maryland to the growing number of states in the country with “dram shop” laws that hold accountable establishments that serve alcohol for the actions of their intoxicated patrons, the possible implications of which could be felt in all corners of the state including Ocean City and Worcester County. Forty-two states along with the District of Columbia have dram shop laws on the books that allow bars, restaurants and liquor stores to be held liable in civil cases for the actions of their customers.

Maryland, along with neighboring Delaware and Virginia, are among the small minority of states that don’t recognize dram shop liability, but the Court of Appeals hearing on Tuesday and the ultimate opinion by the state’s highest court could have far-reaching implications.

Maryland has remained steadfast in the notion there should be no third-party liability for the actions of drunk drivers and the harm they cause.

The case heard by the Court of Appeals involved a civil suit filed by a Montgomery County family against a Gaithersburg restaurant seeking compensatory damages from the establishment following an accident in 2008 that claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl. In 2008, Michael Eaton left the Dogfish Ale House in Gaithersburg after paying a check that included 17 beers and three shots.

According to court records, Eaton then got in his vehicle and drove south on Route 270, reaching speeds approaching 100 mph, before crashing into the rear of vehicle carrying a Montgomery County family, killing the 10-year-old girl. Eaton eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter by motor vehicle and is serving a 10-year sentence in jail, but the victim’s family then turned its attention to the establishment Eaton had just left prior to the fatal collision, seeking compensatory damages.

Under current Maryland law, liquor-serving establishments cannot be held responsible for the actions of their patrons, but the case heard by the Court of Appeals could change that. There have been numerous attempts in the past to add Maryland to the growing list of states with dram shop laws, but an affirmative opinion in the case by the state’s high court could change that.

The current case was originally heard in the Montgomery County Circuit Court and Judge Eric Johnson originally ruled in 2011 the case would go to trial. In 2012, however, Johnson reversed his earlier ruling and dismissed the case, opining the Court of Appeals was the proper venue for an opportunity to change the state law.

On Tuesday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Maryland was lagging behind the times with its lack of dram shop liability and urged the high court to approve the appeal and send the case back to the Montgomery County Circuit Court for trial.

“Only Maryland and four other states continue to bar innocent victims of drunk drivers from recovering damages from the dram shops that profit by plying patrons with alcohol and then blithely sending them onto the highways,” the plaintiff’s attorneys wrote in court documents.