Maryland case shows bars should be liable for drunk patrons

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 31, 2013

The staff at Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg knew the customer’s taste in beer so well they identified him on his tab as “Mike Corona Guy” on that fatal night in August 2008.

They also knew something was wrong when Michael D. Eaton downed 17 bottles of the Mexican brew, plus a shot of vodka, in about five hours. It was too much.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Eaton’s waitress cut him off about 10 p.m., when he turned argumentative. A manager offered to call him a taxi.

Sadly, Eaton declined the cab. And no one from the alehouse insisted or tried to stop him.

Eaton drove off in what he later called a drunken blackout. Shortly afterward, while speeding, he rear-ended another car on I-270.

Jazimen Warr, age 10 at the time, was killed. She was a cheerful girl who liked dogs, horses and dancing.

Eaton, a self-described alcoholic, was duly punished. He was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident.

But the bar escaped any responsibility last week when Maryland’s highest court rejected a closely watched lawsuit brought by the girl’s family. The Court of Appeals voted 4 to 3 to leave in place state law that bars vendors of alcohol from being held liable for injuries caused by patrons after leaving the premises.

The result was disappointing. Anti-drunken-driving activists had hoped the Gaithersburg case was so egregious that Maryland would join 43 states and the District (but not Virginia) in making bars and restaurants accountable at least in some way.

“For me, the bar was liable,” said Angela Warr, Jazimen’s grandmother, who raised the girl from age 2. “They knew how many alcoholic drinks they’d given him. Someone should have said, ‘Give me your keys,’ or ‘Let me call a family member.’ Or they could have called the police.”

Neither the alehouse nor its attorney responded to calls requesting comment.

The main advantage of extending liability to drinkeries is to add an incentive to keep the intoxicated off the roads. A study has found such laws reduce auto fatalities by 3 percent to 11 percent.

Opponents say the change would just be another sign of the “nanny state” junking any expectation of personal responsibility.

In this view, the only person to blame is the guy who ordered the drinks. What’s next, sue the Land Rover company because Eaton was driving one of its vehicles?

But that argument doesn’t apply when the product in question, alcohol, impairs a person’s judgment. You can’t exercise individual responsibility when you’re wasted.

That was certainly Eaton’s condition when he left Dogfish Head Alehouse. In an eye-opening deposition in the lawsuit, Eaton said he had no memory of paying the bill or leaving the bar. He came to while running through bushes near the highway after fleeing the accident scene.

Eaton, now 37, also said he went to the alehouse near his workplace a couple of times a week and typically consumed 10 to 20 beers. “Every time I’d go there, I’d go to get drunk,” he said.

Bar staff members, in their depositions, insisted they didn’t think Eaton was drunk when he left. But they were concerned enough to cut him off and unsuccessfully suggest the taxi.

Jason Fernandez, an attorney for the Warr family, said the bar’s employees would have looked bad if the case had gone to trial.

“The question I would have asked before a jury was: ‘If you thought he was sober, why did you even offer to order him a cab?’ They wouldn’t have had an answer for it,” said Fernandez, who is with the Silver Spring firm Greenberg & Bederman.

On the bright side, the Court of Appeals came within one vote of helping to fix the problem. The case also could prompt the state legislature to change the law.

Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery), shocked by Jazimen’s death, submitted a bill in 2011 and 2012 to bring Maryland in line with most other states. It would make vendors liable under certain circumstances if patrons were served despite being “visibly under the influence of alcoholic beverages.”

The bill was quashed in committee, partly because of strong opposition from the influential restaurant and insurance lobbies. Dumais said she’ll submit it again in the 2014 session and expects publicity over the Gaithersburg case will yield a more positive reception.

The Warr family has lobbied for the bill. Grandmother Angela said: “We’ll keep trying. It won’t bring Jazimen back, but if it means another family doesn’t go through what we did, we’d appreciate that.”

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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