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Is a Bartender Responsible for a Drunk Driver? Maryland and Dram Shop Laws

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Posted On 10.01.14 by in Alcohol Related Arrest

Here’s the question many people ask after being injured by a drunk driver: is the bar or bartender responsible for the drunk driver? Can they be charged with a crime or be held liable in civil court? In Maryland, a bar or bartender who serves alcohol to the driver who causes the accident is not legally responsible for injuries or damages.

Maryland is one of only 7 states with no “Dram Shop” law. A Dram Shop law is the term for a law which says that, yes, somebody who serves alcohol can be held responsible if their customer later goes out and causes an accident. For most people, this is common sense. After all, if you’re a bartender, and you see somebody is getting drunk, you know that that person should not get behind the wheel of a car. You either take their keys or stop serving alcohol.

In these cases, we’re talking about something called “duty of care.”

Duty of Care

In the law, a “duty of care” is the legal obligation you or anybody has to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to other people. For example, if you’re a janitor at a casino and you see a spilled drink, you have a duty-of-care to clean it up as quickly as possible so that nobody slips and gets hurt. This is a pretty standard and accepted truth in the law, and a big part of proving a personal injury case rests on proving that somebody has breached their duty of care.

This makes sense to most people. Our society is based largely on each of us fulfilling our roles in relation to each other, even to the point of protecting people we don’t know from accidents we don’t know will happen.

Just as we would naturally expect a janitor to clean a hazard on the floor, it’s only natural to expect a bartender to stop serving alcohol to somebody who refuses to hand over their keys, right?

Maryland Dram Shop Laws

Well, in Maryland, that logic somehow doesn’t apply. Three times the court of appeals has revisited this question, and each time it has selected to give bars and bartenders immunity in the courtroom. One year ago, in a 4 to 3 decision, the Maryland court of appeals sided with the bar. The majority of judges said that “The facts of this case undoubtedly could serve as the impetus to adjusting Maryland jurisprudence on the topic of dram shop liability. This Court, however, is not the proper Court to make such a radical change in Maryland jurisprudence.”

The judges said, in effect, that nobody in Maryland owes anybody a duty of care, even if they could prevent harm from a third party.

Writing for the minority opinion, Justice Adkins wrote “In this case, Eaton entered JMGM’s bar at approximately 5 P.M. on August 21, 2008. For the next six hours, the bar allegedly served him at least twenty-one alcoholic beverages to the point of Eaton becoming violent and aggressive. The bar, thus, took a non-dangerous Eaton and, by serving him drink after drink after drink, helped to transform him into a dangerous Eaton. Based on these facts, the jury could reasonably conclude that the bar’s conduct, in over-serving Eaton, actively created a risk of harm to the Warrs and others, by exposing the Warrs to a greater risk than they would have faced absent the bar’s conduct.”

Seems pretty logical, but the precedent of not allowing bars to be held liable continues for now.

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