How Do Dram Shop Laws Benefit Children?

Michael GrossmanAugust 15, 2018 4 minutes

Perhaps one of the most misused arguments in favor of a law or government program is that "it's for the children." People who use this argument often do so in order to stop a debate, instead of starting one. This will not be one of those occasions.

I recently read about a horrific crash in Foley, Alabama. According to reports, an alleged drunk driver, Debra Estep, 57, turned and drove onto the wrong side of a highway and collided with a vehicle driven by Josie Jones, 20, head-on. Ms. Jones was killed in the crash, along with her unborn child. Officers on the scene smelled alcohol, obtained a warrant to test Ms. Estep, and await the toxicology results.

Not that anyone should need a reminder about how awful the loss of a young pregnant mother and her unborn child is, but reports hammered home just how difficult this particular incident was, by noting that first-responders took this crash very hard and were quite emotional. Now, if people who make a living seeing the worst of human behavior are shaken by an incident, it speaks to the magnitude of the horror they witnessed.

Naturally, folks are outraged. It follows that most are angry with the Ms. Estep's alleged actions. However, I suspect that many people will feel differently if it turns out that a licensed alcohol provider over-served Ms. Estep before the crash, and that vendor ends up involved in litigation. Like my home state of Texas, Alabama has dram shop laws that hold alcohol providers accountable when they break the law and over-serve a drunk who goes on to injure someone.

Some people intensely dislike these laws. But when the victim is a child, I believe dram shop laws represent a part of a comprehensive effort in our society to protect children from the ills of alcohol.

Why Do We Regulate Liquor In the First Place?

Since the founding of our republic, laws regulating alcohol production, consumption, and use have been on the books. While a great many of these laws deal with raising revenue, a substantial portion attempt to provide a framework for people to safely enjoy a substance that is dangerous when misused or abused.

I realize I'm stating the obvious, but the liquor laws that enjoy the widest and deepest public support are those that attempt to shield children from the harms that alcohol can cause. Obviously, the first laws that jump to mind are prohibitions against the sale of alcohol to kids. We recognize that, as a class, children simply lack that ability to make informed decisions about alcohol consumption and make the risk-assessments necessary to use it responsibly.

In a similar vein, we have vast children's welfare bureaucracies, whose purpose is to protect children from abuse and neglect. You don't have to know much about those agencies and their mission to know that many of the problems that require their intervention stem from drug and alcohol abuse. In short, we go out of our way to take concrete steps to protect children from specific harms when we can.

This protective halo extends to our roads in the form of drunk driving laws. Perhaps the best reason for having drunk driving laws and strongly enforcing them is to punish people who choose to abuse alcohol who harm those that don't. Since we go to such lengths to keep children from drunks and alcohol, it doesn't make sense to permit the drunks to come to them.

With the exception of laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors, none of these acts directly deal with children and alcohol, but protecting children from alcohol ends up falling under their umbrella. Dram shop laws are no different.

Dram Shop Another Law that Separates Children From Alcohol

It's not my intent to oversell the benefits of dram shop law as a means to protect children. Certainly, age restrictions, drunk driving laws, and our social services do the heavy lifting when it comes to protecting children from the consequences of reckless alcohol consumption. That does not mean that dram shop doesn't have a role to play.

If other alcohol laws serve as the main defensive mechanism protecting children from alcohol, then dram shop laws plug a vital gap in those defenses. In states without dram shop, an awkward legal situation exists where a bar that would be fined heavily for selling alcohol to a small child receives no punishment when they break the law and a child is injured or killed as a result.

Dram shop law closes this loophole in the law, by allowing families whose child suffers an injury or death at the hands of a drunk driver who was illegally served by a licensed alcohol provider to take direct civil action against the bar that broke the law. Of course, this isn't a perfect remedy, but it provides families the opportunity to hold everyone who contributed to a child's injury accountable for their illegal actions.

While some people (and state legislatures) argue that people choosing to drink too much is the sole cause of drunk driving crashes, after a wreck the drunk driver languishes in jail, while the alcohol provider who broke the law counts the money they made from their illegal activity. I think the Alabama crash that I mentioned before, which claimed the life of a young woman and her unborn child, illustrates how untenable this position really is. It's repugnant to think that anyone could make money off of this crash or any similar incident.

If a bar contributed to a crash so shocking that first-responders were visibly shaken by the carnage, it strikes me as unconscionable that the community would then tell the family that the state will get justice on their behalf and punish the drunk driver, but any alcohol provider who played a role is off limits. Thankfully, Alabama and Texas aren't states where anyone has to say that to a family in that situation.

This is usually the part of my dram shop explanations where someone chimes in or comments that suing a bar isn't going to bring back anyone's lost child. Such people miss the point. Those who lose loved ones due to someone else's carelessness aren't fools. They don't want to see the reckless person or business punished as a means to bring back the dead, but to ensure that other families don't endure the pain that someone else's bad decisions foisted on their family.

If we permit alcohol providers to go unpunished when they break the law and someone dies as a result we'll inevitably end up with more bars, restaurants, and liquor stores who flout the laws, simply because there's nothing stopping them. Without a doubt, some number of the victims will be children. If a liquor licensee isn't decent enough to do the right thing on their own, dram shop laws are one means of (legally speaking) slapping a little sense into them. Is it a perfect way to protect children from the ravages of drunk driving? Absolutely not. Dram shop may only be one small part of an extensive legal regime that tries to separate children from alcohol, but it's nevertheless an important one.