Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Maryland Court of Appeals Declines to Impose Dram Shop Liability on Bar or Tavern Owners

In a 4-3 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals recently declined to impose dram shop liability on the part of a bar or tavern owner.  The Court held that, absent a showing of a special relationship between the injured party or tortious actor and the bar, there is no duty owed by the bar to prevent harm inflicted by an intoxicated patron while not on the premises of the bar or tavern.

In this particular case, Michael Eaton was served and consumed approximately seventeen beers and three liquor drinks at Dogfish Head Alehouse.  The bar staff eventually refused to serve any more alcohol to Eaton, and offered to call him a cab.  Eaton refused cab service, opting, to drive from the bar instead.  While driving from the bar that evening, Eaton collided with a vehicle occupied by Plaintiffs, resulting in serious injuries to two parents and a child, and the death of another child.

After the Circuit Court for Montgomery County granted summary judgment for Dogfish Head Alehouse, but prior to consideration by the Court of Special Appeals, the Court of Appeals granted Plaintiff’s petition for certiorari to consider whether to adopt dram shop liability as a matter of Maryland law.

The Court of Appeals addressed the merits of Plaintiff’s appeal, focusing primarily on whether Dogfish Head had a duty to protect the Warrs from injury by an inebriated patron.  When determining liability for torts caused by third persons, the court stated that liability only exists when the entity sued had some control over the third party by virtue of some special relationship.  Similarly, without the existence of a special relationship between, or control over the third party, there can be no duty to a tortiously-injured person.  Because Warr did not assert the existence of a special relationship between Dogfish Head and themselves, the court concluded that they were owed no duty.

Plaintiff also argued that Dogfish Head owed a duty to refuse intoxicated persons due to the existence of a criminal statute containing similar language and intent.  For support, Warr cited numerous extra jurisdictional cases where state courts applied civil liability on the basis of an existing, similar criminal statute.  The court conceded that civil liability may be assigned on the basis of a criminal statute, but that this requires that the plaintiff show that the specific statute or ordinance be designed to protect a class of persons, which includes the plaintiff.  As the court pointed out, the criminal statute relied upon by Warr was designed for the “protection, health, welfare, and safety of the people” of Maryland.  Because this statute applied to the public in general, no special relationship or class was formed.  As such, no statutory civil duty existed.

In conclusion, the majority noted that the decision to impose civil liability to bar owners due to injuries caused by their intoxicated patrons involves significant public policy considerations that are better suited for the legislature.

In the future, the Maryland legislature may impose dramshop liability on bars and taverns in Maryland. For now, however, the highest court in Maryland has, again, said that bars and taverns are (typically) not liable for injuries caused off-premises by intoxicated customers.

Article Contributed by Derrick Dye 

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