On August 21, 2008, a patron at a Gaithersburg tavern in Maryland racked up a bill including 17 beers and other drinks. He got behind the wheel of a Range rover then crashed into the back of a Jeep Cherokee at speeds up to 98mph. A 10-year-old girl was in the backseat of the Jeep along with her sister. The girl was killed in the crash, while everyone else in the vehicle sustained injuries. This led to a legal battle that could lead to allowing drunken driving victims and families to sue restaurants and bars if the patron causes death or injury. The victim’s grandparents will request $3.25 million from the Dogfish Head Alehouse, where the drunken driver was served 17 beers. The restaurant asked the Court of Appeals to reject the family’s claim in response.
Owners of bars and restaurants are watching closely because the case will affect how they run business. Many businesses say they already stop customers from drinking if they appear intoxicated, and bartenders will not let them drive. Once a patron leaves the premise, they aren’t responsible for their actions, and if they are blamed for a customer’s actions, this would raise insurance premiums and push many people out of business.
Maryland is one of few states that don’t allow lawsuits against taverns. 36 states have those laws and 43 states have laws for underage customers. During the past two years, a “dram shop liability law” was introduced, but didn’t move out of the House Judiciary Committee.
The family of the 10-year-old girl in the collision testified for those measures, and they said they never want anyone else to go through what they did. The suspect plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 8 years behind bars. The family sued the restaurant, but the case was dismissed. The Maryland Association for Justice, a group of lawyers representing those who sue due to injuries, support the family’s claim, and said that the costs of innocent victims of drunk drivers should be on the restaurant that benefited from the sales of liquor. Alcohol-related fatalities fell 11% when restaurants and bars faced the possibility of a lawsuit, according to a study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Alcohol factored into 22% of collision costs in Maryland, as well. A law professor said although Maryland is conservative about financial relief for those who sustained injury, there won’t be a strong economic effect if victims were allowed to sue bars, according to news reports.