When Drunk Driving Happens… Blame the Bartenders?

When a drunk driving accident occurs, most people blame the person who drank alcohol. Many legislators, however, believe some of that blame should be placed on the person who served the alcohol in the first place.

Liability laws vary by state. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, vendors can be held liable for intoxicated adults. In 14 other states, they cannot. Tennessee is one of 15 states that falls somewhere in the middle, with laws that provide for “limited” vendor liability for intoxicated adults. (1) States that do hold bartenders responsible, in certain cases, spend much time deliberating the cases. “Our state puts most of the responsibility on the individual for their behavior, but a bar, restaurant or convenience store can be held liable and have been in the past,” said Nashville lawyer Will Cheek. “It creates a presumption that the person who is drinking is the one who is at fault.” (1)

Bartenders can be held responsible in some cases, but it’s difficult to prove. “The legislature has made it difficult to prove a case against a bar for over-serving somebody,” Nashville lawyer Bill Leader said. “It’s a high bar to clear because you’ve got to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.” (1)

Many bars enforce their own workers, setting the policy to not serve clearly intoxicated individuals. “We don’t want to be responsible for putting them out on the street,” said restaurant owner Randy Rayburn. “We take keys away on occasion.” Some areas are even proposing that bartenders and servers go through additional training to recognize intoxicated patrons and avoid serving underagers. “If you over-serve somebody and they go out and hurt somebody, you’ve got a responsibility there,” said Leader. “It’s just a good public policy not to be over-serving people alcohol. Shouldn’t society try to prevent that?” (1)

Lincoln, NE is one such area that is proposing mandatory classes, but other people are not so sure it is necessary. They argue that it is very difficult for bartenders to recognize every intoxicated person that orders a drink in the minute it takes to serve them. “It’s horrible when somebody goes out and causes a drunk-driving accident, but I think that person is the one who should be held accountable for their actions,” Cheek said. (1)

Since the consequences of drunken driving can be so devastating, placing blame is inevitable. “That entity and that person who has been serving them has a responsibility to stop them from driving their car, and if they don’t, they could end up going to jail,” said Tom Kimball, traffic safety resource prosecutor at the Tennessee District Attorneys General. “We’re not looking for these cases. We don’t want that to happen. But if something like that happened, local prosecutors would have to evaluate that.” (1)

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