Maryland Court of Appeals rules against creation of dram shop law

In many states across the country, the owner of a bar, restaurant or liquor store that sells or serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron may find itself the defendant in a lawsuit if the patron is involved in a car crash after leaving the business and injures others or causes property damage as a result of driving drunk. The statutes and case law that create this form of third-party liability are known as dram shop laws. A handful of states do not recognize dram shop liability, including Maryland and Virginia. On July 25, Maryland's highest court ruled that it would not create dram shop liability. The case giving rise to this decision involved a 2008 car accident which claimed the life of a 10-year-old girl.

The facts of the case

On an August night in 2008, a man went to a bar in Gaithersburg. Over the course of six hours, he ordered 17 beers and three liquor drinks, running up a bar tab of $107, according to Bar employees asked him to leave after he started acting rowdy. Less than an hour later, as he was driving on Interstate 270 at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour, his car slammed into the back of another car. Three people in that car were injured, while the fourth occupant of the vehicle, a young girl, died at a Rockville hospital. A year later, the man pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter and received a sentence of eight years. At the time of the appeals court's ruling in the suit against the bar, the Frederick News-Post reported that the driver had been released from prison. The survivors of the wreck sued the bars' owners, seeking compensation for its role in the crash.

Dram shop liability in Maryland

Before its most recent decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals had visited the issue of dram shop liability in 1981 and, prior to that, in 1951. In each of these cases, the court held that bars and other businesses that sell alcohol in Maryland are not responsible for their patrons' actions after they leave the bar. A plaintiff attempting to prove negligence must demonstrate the following elements:

  • The defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury
  • The defendant breached that duty
  • The plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss
  • The loss or injury resulted from the defendant's breach of duty

The court found that the plaintiffs did not satisfy the first element. According to case law, in order to impose third-party liability, there must be a special relationship between the defendant and the third party or between the defendant and the person injured. The court found no special relationship, and thus no duty.

The decisions also point out that the legislature is better suited to the creation of a law that would impose third-party liability for bars and restaurants which over-serve obviously intoxicated persons. Since the manufacture and sale of alcohol is a field which is already heavily regulated by the legislature, the court opined that if legislators felt dram shop liability was necessary, they would enact a law imposing it. In the past few legislative sessions, there have been bills introduced attempting to establish a dram shop law, but none has passed.

In spite of the court's decision, a person injured in a drunk-driving crash should still consult an attorney to explore options for recovering compensation. Experienced attorneys are aware of recent decisions affecting your rights and can guide you throughout the legal process.