A Maryland Circuit Court Judge ruled last Friday that a civil lawsuit against a Montgomery County Bar for knowingly serving a drunken patron who later killed a 10-year-old girl in a car accident could continue. The ruling contradicts long-settled Maryland case law, but will certainly provoke discussion about Maryland's dram shop liability laws.
Our Maryland injury attorneys have significant experience representing Plaintiffs who have suffered catastrophic injuries as a result of another's negligence in car accidents.
The Judge's ruling affects the lawsuit filed by William J. Warr, Jr., who filed a $3.25 million lawsuit in Montgomery County, Maryland against the owners of Dogfish Head Alehouse. The lawsuit alleges that the bar sold alcohol to a patron, knowing that the patron was already drunk, and allowing him to drive off in his Land Rover on August 21, 2008. The patron eventually drove 100 miles per hour before he crashed into Warr's Jeep Cherokee and killed his granddaughter and severely injured Warr, his wife and another granddaughter.
The patron, Michael Eaton, was sentenced to 8 years in jail and is not a party to the lawsuit.
The Court of Appeals last addressed this issue in the case of Felder v. Butler. In Felder, the Plaintiff sued a bar owner who continuously served a patron who was alleged to have been visibly under the influence of alcohol. She ended up striking a vehicle driven by the Plaintiff.
The Felder Court upheld the common law rule that an innocent third party does not have a cause of action against a vendor for injuries suffered as a result of the intoxication of the vendor's patron. The Court recognized that other state legislatures have established laws permitting lawsuits against selling alcohol to an intoxicated person. The Court reasoned that permitting such a lawsuit, without applicable legislation, would usurp the role of the legislature.
The Maryland General Assembly has periodically attempted to draft such legislation, but such bills (e.g. House Bill 1120) have not succeeded. The restaurant lobby has vocally opposed such bills and as recent as this year these efforts have failed.
The Judge's ruling is unusual because procedurally a circuit court judge is bound by precedent of the Maryland Court of Appeals. Under the principle of stare decisis, a trial judge would usually be mandated to grant a defendant's motion to dismiss and allow the Plaintiff to challenge the judge's decision in the Court of Special Appeals.
The Montgomery County Judge, however, believes that "times have changed" since the Felder decision, and that "a bar owner who continuously serves drinks to intoxicated individuals and makes no attempt to ensure that the individual has alternative means home should expect that the intoxicated person can get into an accident."