A popular quote variously attributed to Mark Twain, Yogi Berra, and Will Rogers goes, "It's not what you know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Nowhere is that more true than with the public's knowledge of the legal system. To help rectify this problem, we sometimes use this space to talk about recent cases our firm has taken on that illustrate how the law works in real life.
One such case involved a man who was driving home after a night out when his vehicle overturned, causing disabling spinal injuries. While we're still investigating the particulars, it appears that he visited two bars that night, and it's highly likely that at least one over-served him while he was already intoxicated. If they did so, we expect that we'll be able to hold them accountable for their share of the responsibility for what happened.
A Man's Drive Home Ends in A Catastrophic Wreck
The events of this case occurred in Alice, TX in June of 2019. Our client was traveling home from a night of heavy drinking when his vehicle left the roadway, struck a fire hydrant and flipped several times. The crash caused a traumatic spinal cord injury, leading him to be paralyzed from the waist down. With no health insurance, he faces the prospect of paying the massive costs of treatment and recovery with nothing but what his family is able to raise from crowdfunding.
It appears that our client visited two bars the night of the accident, each of which has its share of alleged alcohol service violations. While we can't say definitively that they over-served our client before the crash, there's certainly strong circumstantial evidence to suggest they did.
One bar, Bea's Place, ironically has a prominent sign on its premises reading "Drink Responsibly." But based on the many TABC complaints against them, responsible alcohol service doesn't appear to be a major priority. The grounds of the complaints range from service of alcohol to intoxicated persons, unreported possession or sale of drugs on site, and several breaches of the peace. (Essentially, drunk people getting into fights, which have to be reported to the TABC, as they're often indicators of careless provision of alcohol.)
Obviously, not every complaint is necessarily well-founded, but given the sheer numbers in this case, it would be pretty bizarre if there turned out to be no negligent service involved in our client's case. We expect that further investigation will reveal some pretty damning information that will allow this bar to be held accountable.
The other bar our client visited that night, Slugger's Sports Bar, also has its share of TABC complaints, including selling alcohol to minors, breach of the peace, and intoxicated staff. But on top of all that, we were struck by something posted on the bar's social media: a photo of tables with buckets of beer on them. This is admittedly a pretty commonplace way of serving alcohol, but it's also a major hazard from the standpoint of safe service. Ideally, a bucket will be shared more or less proportionally among several friends, but a server has no way of telling who's drinking and how much when they're dispensing drinks five or six at a time this way. Even more dangerous, it wouldn't be out of the question for an irresponsible one to sell a bucket to an individual and let them go to town.
Given all of this evidence, it seems pretty likely that someone at the second bar our client visited, if not the first, should have noticed his intoxication and cut him off. If they failed to do so, our attorneys will have solid grounds to hold them to their share of the responsibility for his injuries.
Why Single Vehicle Crashes Are More Complicated Than You Think
At this point, many of you may be thinking, "Okay, maybe the management of these bars could have been more responsible, but it's still on the drunk driver for ordering all that booze. Why should someone else pay for it if he crashes his car after getting sloshed?" There are a few problems with this argument, so let's address them each in turn.
First off, the question of responsibility for these crashes is a bit murkier than it might seem. One of the primary reasons we rely on the staff of licensed alcohol providers to cut people off is the recognition of how consuming intoxicants impairs decision making and even accurate evaluation of one's sobriety. Once someone reaches a certain level of inebriation, it's much harder for them to accurately gauge how drunk they actually are and responsibly stop drinking, especially if they're alone and don't have a designated sober friend or designated driver to watch out for them.
Second, the moral logic of dram shop claims in which the drunk driver is the only one injured (first-party claims) is largely the same as that applied to those in which they harm someone else. In both situations, society has a strong interest in making sure establishments that carelessly over-serve their patrons face appropriate consequences. Hopefully, this deters them from repeating the behavior in a much more effective way than relatively trivial sanctions from the TABC.
Finally, the objective of a dram shop claim isn't to get the drunk driver "off the hook" for their reckless actions. Not only will they still face appropriate criminal charges for DUI or DWI, but they're also held to their share of the blame in any civil action. This means the compensation a plaintiff receives from the bar or restaurant will be reduced by the extent of the responsibility they incur by driving while impaired. The goal of this litigation isn't to pass the buck; it's to help ensure that bars and restaurants live up to the legal responsibilities they take on as a condition of their liquor license.
Ultimately, making sure that licensed alcohol providers prioritize the safety of the public over shortsighted financial gain doesn't just protect people who might end up drinking and driving after being over-served. It makes our roads a safer place for all of us.