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Restaurants may be liable for drunk driving crashes in Maryland

Maryland may join other states in the country in imposing so-called "dram shop" laws. Dram shop laws allow victims of drunk driving accidents or their families to hold bars and restaurants accountable for wrongful death, injury or other damages caused by a drunk customer of the establishment. This week the Maryland Court of Appeals heard an appeal in a case that could expand liability to Maryland restaurants for patrons they serve who then are involved in fatal drunken driving crashes.

The case comes from a suit where family members of a young girl sued Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland after the establishment served a customer 17 beers and three shots in one sitting. The man later drove drunk south on Interstate 270 at speeds close to 100 mph when he crashed into another car, killing a 10-year-old passenger. When police searched the man's car they also found 17 open beer cans in the back seat. The man pleaded guilty and is serving eight years behind bars for the crime. Family members then sued the Alehouse for more than $3 million for partial responsibility for their daughter's death and the other injuries and damages in the accident.

Currently 43 states and the District of Columbia have some type of dram shop law in effect. Only Maryland and 7 other states in the country prevent victims from recovering damages from the establishments that serve drunk drivers under dram shop rules. It can be difficult to prove that an alcohol vendor is liable. For example, how do bartenders know whether a patron is drinking on an empty stomach, has a low tolerance or was intoxicated before entering the establishment? How do they know the patron even drove a car?

The family member of anyone dies as a result of another's negligence may recover damages in a wrongful death action. These damages may include reimbursement of loss of future income, loss of companionship, loss of consortium, and damages for pain and suffering. Victims of drunk drivers may also be entitled to seek additional, punitive damages.

Source: Gazette, "State Court of Appeals hears case of liability of bars in drunken driving cases," St. John Barnerd-Smith, March 12, 2013

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