Friday, April 5, 2013

The Court of Appeals Hears Dram Shop Case

The Court of Appeals is reviewing Maryland’s Dram Shop Rule for the first time in 32 years. Under the current precedent, establishments that sell alcohol are immune from liability for damages caused by their drunk customers after they leave. In the 32 years since this issue was last addressed, however, society’s understanding and perception of driving under the influence of alcohol has drastically changed. Those changes are apparent by the increased penalties for such offenses. Yet, the rule granting bars immunity has not changed. The Maryland General Assembly attempted to alter the rule legislatively to match changed opinions, but failed to pass legislation in both 2011 and 2012.  Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons has deemed the effort of passing legislation “a lost cause,” pointing the finger at the strong lobbying power of bars and other alcohol retailers for preventing any legislation to pass. Such circumstances leave the Court as the last hope for dram shop liability.
The Court has undertaken the review of the Dram Shop Rule in the case of  Warr v. JMGM Group, LLC, d/b/a Dogfish Head Alehouse. The case stems from events that occurred on August 28, 2008. On that night, Michael Eaton crashed into William and Angela Warr’s Jeep.  Eaton was driving his Land Rover at speeds of 100 miles per hour.  In the accident, Mr. Warr’s granddaughter Jazimen was killed. Mr. and Mrs. Warr, and their other granddaughter, Cortavia Harris, were also seriously injured. After the collision, Mr. Eaton drove 1000 feet beyond where the accident took place and dialed 911 to report that he had hurt his arm in an accident. He did not mention any other injuries before ending the call and driving away. In 2009, Mr. Eaton was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident involving injury. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 12 years suspended, and five years’ supervised probation.
The Warr’s sued Dogfish Head Alehouse, the bar where Mr. Eaton was drinking, for negligence. In the suit, the Warr’s allege that the bar negligently sold alcohol to Michael Eaton when he was already intoxicated. They further alleged that the bar sold Mr. Eaton about 20 drinks over a six hour period. At some point employees of Dogfish Head Alehouse, allegedly, refused to serve Mr. Eaton after he became aggressive and violent.  But they did not stop Mr. Eaton from driving away from the bar when they knew he was drunk. Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Eric M. Johnson rejected the bar’s motion to dismiss, holding that perhaps it was time to review bars’ liability for damage done by their drunk customers. Bound by the Court of Appeals’ precedent, Judge Johnson ultimately granted summary judgment for Dogfish Head Alehouse. The Warr’s appeal of that decision was heard by the Court of Appeals.
Overturning the precedent would be a drastic change from the immunity bars have relied on in the past. The Dogfish Head Alehouse’s attorney, Robert B. Hetherington, urged the Court to maintain the current precedent, and suggested that such a sweeping change in public policy should be left to the legislature. But with the failure of the Legislature to pass such measures, we now wait for the Court’s decision.

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