Is There A Better Argument for Dram Shop Law Than a Fatal Crash With a Drunk Bartender?

Michael GrossmanJuly 20, 2018 4 minutes

Anyone who has spent time sitting at a bar may have seen its tender have a few drinks. Sometimes it's just a beer over the course of a shift, and other times she takes a few shots in a row with a group of regulars. Most bartenders know and maintain their limits like professionals (if they drink at all), but just like they sometimes over-serve their patrons, they too can overindulge.

When we can't even trust many bars and restaurants to stop serving obviously intoxicated clients, it's hard to believe they'll stop their employees from overindulging as well. Considering how many hours of the day these staff members are around alcohol, sometimes they inadvertently (or purposely) get drunk and then drive after their shifts--to disastrous results.

A fatal auto wreck near the end of last year recently popped up in the news for exactly this reason. Given that we mostly talk about Texas dram shop law through the lens of over-served patrons, it caught my eye for being a different twist on an unfortunately familiar story.

What Happened?

The crash happened late last year on November 18 in the small town of Ferris, Texas.

Ferris police say that 23-year-old Kaitlin Eagle was driving under the influence around 6:50 p.m. that Saturday. As she struggled to stay in her lane of southbound Interstate Highway 45, a family pulled onto the shoulder a short distance ahead.

Roberto (40) and Teresa (37) Leon were on their way to a drive-in movie with their two children when their Kia hatchback blew a tire. The parents pulled the car onto the shoulder of I-45 and got out to change it.

Around this time Kaitlin Eagle's Hyundai veered out of its lane, first hitting a Chevy Avalanche pickup truck before rebounding the other direction. The Hyundai left the highway's southbound lanes around the 400 block of I-45 and hit the disabled Kia sedan, killing both Roberto and Teresa Leon on impact.

Miraculously the Leons' children sustained only minor injuries. Kaitlin Eagle and the driver of the Chevy truck were taken to a nearby hospital and later discharged. Police determined via a search warrant of Eagle's treatment documentation that her blood-alcohol content (BAC) measured .25, over three times the legal limit in Texas. She was later arrested and charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter.

Bartenders Should (But Don't Always) Act Better.

Thanks to the diligent efforts of Texas law enforcement, there's no need to speculate about whether or not Ms. Eagle was intoxicated when the crash happened. A .25 BAC isn't just drunk, it's very drunk, and in this case that drinking wasn't done at home. In their post-investigation affidavit, police say they learned from Eagle's purchase history and from interviewing her co-workers that she was drinking at "a Dallas bar" the evening of the crash. The report didn't specify which one, but that's pretty standard if the bar hasn't been conclusively identified.

It was unclear to me at first why the police went to Ms. Eagle's place of employment for information about her DUI. It turns out that she works as a bartender for Bombshells Restaurant in Dallas, near Love Field airport. Ferris is southeast of Dallas proper, partway between Bombshells and Ms. Eagle's home town of Richland. Given the facts described by the police, the accident might have happened after a Saturday shift at the bar as Ms. Eagle made her way back home.

I can't definitely say that Bombshells was where Eagle got intoxicated, though that business does have a fairly lengthy list of alcohol-related infractions. I mostly mention her service job because as a bartender, Ms. Eagle should probably know better than to engage in this behavior.

Bartenders in Texas must obtain certification from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). From what I understand the training involved isn't terribly grueling, but it does involve learning to recognize tolerances and limits, and not to keep serving someone once they're obviously intoxicated. By the time they're certified, bartenders have few excuses for failing to notice when someone is drunk, and even fewer for failing to respect their own tolerances to the extent of a .25 BAC.

Drunk-driving bartenders are just as dangerous as their loaded patrons. If they don't consider the consequences of getting polluted before jumping in their cars, the law is there to help their victims' families.

Enter Texas Dram Shop Law

In Texas and many other states, places that serve alcohol have a legal obligation not to over-serve an obviously intoxicated patron. If a bar continued to pour drinks for Kaitlin Eagle after it became clear she was well past her limits--or if she did it herself and her employer didn't intervene--Texas dram shop law grants those injured by her drunken actions the chance to hold the bar partially responsible. Ms. Eagle's personal auto insurance likely will not cover enough to fully compensate the Leon family for the heartaches and hardships caused by their loved ones' deaths. Because a commercial establishment likely helped her become dangerously drunk despite their legal obligation not to do so, dram shop law holds them partially accountable for what she did in her intoxicated state.

People occasionally object to this idea: "Wait a minute, but the drunk driver was the one who did the deed! Nobody forced her to get behind the wheel after she drank. That's not fair to the bar!" No one is suggesting there's no personal responsibility on the driver's part--only that all parties who contributed to her dangerous level of intoxication should be held accountable.

Think of it this way: In a foiled bank robbery, would it only be the one holding the cash-filled bag that faces charges? What about the safe-cracker? The getaway driver? They all played a role in the crime even if they didn't physically grab the cash themselves. The same applies to dram shop cases; the businesses who enable--encourage--a drunk's increasingly poor decisions should have some liability in any damage caused by the person they weaponize.

That analogy isn't perfect, of course, because dram shop law isn't a matter of criminal punishment. It's a method of civil remedy that helps injured victims of drunk driving seek damages from everyone involved with the "supply" side of a drunk-driving crash. The criminal justice system may fine or imprison the driver, but victims and their families deserve something more tangible in their efforts to right the course of their disrupted lives.

Altogether, Kaitlin Eagle allegedly made a series of bad choices that led to an irreversible tragedy. Whether she was on the job at Bombshells or drinking somewhere else, nobody knows better than a bartender how many drinks a person can stand before they're too messy to be trusted with anything serious--like, say, driving a car. Ms. Eagle may not have been under any greater legal obligation not to get intoxicated, but her common sense and TABC training likely should have prevented her from making such errors. Now that the deed is done, though, whatever establishment helped her get drunk by serving her LONG after she was obviously intoxicated must be held accountable.