Court Rules Against ‘Dram Shop Liability’

OCEAN CITY — Maryland’s highest court last week ruled restaurants and bars in the state could not be held liable for the actions of their intoxicated patrons once they leave the establishment in a potential landmark decision.

The Maryland Court of Appeals handed down a majority opinion that absent dram shop liability law in Maryland, a Montgomery County tavern could not be held responsible for the actions of an intoxicated patron who consumed around 20 alcoholic beverages in the establishment before leaving in his truck, barreling down a highway at speeds approaching 100 mph and crashing into the rear of a vehicle carrying a family, killing a 10-year-old girl and seriously injuring others.

The victim’s family filed a civil suit against the parent company of the Dogfish Head Ale House in Gaithersburg, alleging the management and staff knew or should have known the driver had been over-served and created a high risk for the public when he was allowed to leave after consuming about 20 drinks. The case was originally filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court and a judge there originally ruled it would go to trial. The judge then reversed his decision, opining the Maryland Court of Appeals would be the proper venue for the weighty case with broad implications.

The Court of Appeals agreed to take up the renewed debate for dram shop liability in Maryland and heard testimony in the case in March. Last Thursday, Maryland’s highest court handed down an opinion the Montgomery tavern could not be held responsible for the actions of the driver, Michael Eaton, who eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is currently serving a 10-year sentence.

The victim’s family then turned its attention to the establishment where Eaton had just left prior to the fatal collision, seeking compensatory damages. Forty-two states along with the District of Columbia have dram shops on the books that allow bars, restaurants and liquor stores to be held accountable for the actions of their patron, but Maryland is not one of them. Maryland does not recognize dram shop liability, which is why the Court of Appeals ruled last week the Dogfish Ale House could not be held responsible for Eaton’s actions after he left the establishment.

“The Court of Appeals held that Maryland does not recognize a cause of action against a tavern for harm caused by an intoxicated person off premises in the absence of a special relationship between the tavern and the person harmed, or between the tavern and the actor who caused the harm,” the majority opinion reads. “Absent such a relationship, the court held the tavern does not owe a duty to the injured party to prevent the harm caused by the intoxicated patron.”

Under current Maryland law, liquor-serving establishments cannot be held liable for the actions of their patrons. The Maryland Court of Appeals in the past has heard cases evoking the necessity of a change in the law, but that change would have to come from an action by the General Assembly, according to majority opinion released last week.

“In this case, the Warrs do not assert any relationship existed between themselves and Dogfish and, therefore, there cannot be any duty owed to them by the tavern with respect to the harm caused by a third person,” the opinion reads. “Simply put, we just do not recognize a duty. Instead, we adhere to the principle that human beings, drunk or sober, are responsible for their own torts.”

However, the dissenting opinion authored by Judge Glenn Harrell pointed out the staggering statistics of bar and restaurant patrons drinking and driving and later causing serious and often fatal accidents. The dissenting opinion called the majority’s ruling a missed opportunity.

“Against the backdrop of this crisis, this case presented the opportunity to impose dram shop liability on commercial vendors of alcohol that continue to serve patrons after they are visibly under the influence,” the dissenting opinion reads. “Scientific studies have consistently found strong evidence showing that dram shop liability reduces motor vehicle crash deaths in general, and alcohol-related crash deaths in particular.”

The dissenting opinion suggests if bars and restaurants were allowed to be held liable for the actions of their patrons, management and staff would be more diligent in not over-serving intoxicated guests.

“Imposing civil dram shop liability would do just that,” the dissenting opinion reads. “It would create stronger incentives for bar owners to abide by the existing requirement that they avoid serving patrons that are already visibly under the influence of alcohol.”

The dissenting opinion called on state lawmakers to take up the dram shop issue anew.

“Moreover, when the death of a Maryland citizen every 40 hours is compared against ensuring that a person visibly under the influence of alcohol is not served further alcoholic drinks, the scales tip overwhelmingly in favor of imposing a duty on the bar establishments,” the dissenting opinion reads.