The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, overruling an earlier decision, declared yesterday that tavern owners in the District are not liable for damage or injuries caused by persons who become drunk on their premises.
The ruling by a three-judge panel came in a suit against Rumors Restaurant, 1900 M St. NW, brought by Lee Norwood, a National Hockey League player whose jaw was broken in August 1982 in a post-midnight scuffle outside the restaurant.
In 1984 Norwood, who has moved from the Washington Capitals to the St. Louis Blues, was awarded $51,214 by a U.S. District Court jury in an assault and battery case against his alleged assailant, Mark Marrocco, then a college student, who had been drinking at Rumors before the sidewalk brawl.
Yesterday the Court of Appeals ruled that under District liquor licensing laws, Norwood could not bring a negligence claim against Rumors, stemming from the assault. This reversed a 1973 decision by the Appeals Court, which said the doctrine of "dramshop liability" applied in D.C., holding that a tavern can be sued if one of its drunk patrons injures a third party.
Lawyers familiar with the case suggested yesterday that it now would require a law passed by the D.C. City Council to make tavern owners liable for such conduct.
The new decision is similar to a ruling last week, which applies to taverns in Virginia, by U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton in Alexandria. Earlier last year another federal judge, Richard L. Williams, ruled that dramshop liability was applicable in Virginia. That decision has been appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The doctrine has been rejected repeatedly by courts in Maryland and recently by local courts in Fairfax County, but it apparently is spreading nationwide through efforts of groups led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
According to a tabulation by MADD, 18 states have statutes holding tavern owners liable for injuries inflicted by intoxicated patrons. An additional 16 states, a MADD spokesman said, have judicial decisions permitting liability to be established, similar to the ruling that was overturned by the appeals court yesterday.
Appeals Court Judge Kenneth W. Starr, writing for the unanimous panel yesterday, said tavern owner liability did not apply in the city because the federal courts should follow a "well-reasoned, carefully researched opinion" on the issue by D.C. Superior Court Judge Joseph M. Hannon in 1978.
Hannon found that the city law prohibiting bars from serving liquor to persons who appeared to be drunk could not be used as the basis for a civil suit against a tavern owner because the law was intended to promote public morality, not protect public safety.
Starr said that under the D.C. Court Reorganization Act, the federal courts no longer have the power they had in 1973 to decide issues of D.C. law.
Federal Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, who presided at the trial, also dismissed Norwood's $2.5 million claim against Rumors. But Oberdorfer said he did so because Norwood himself was drunk at the time of the brawl, which constituted "contributory negligence" that barred any recovery against Rumors.
According to Starr, Norwood and some teammates had been drinking at a bar nearby when they met Marrocco, then 20 and a resident of McLean, "in the shadows of a hot dog stand near Rumors."