Texas Dram Shop Law Helps the Victims of Drunk Driving

Michael GrossmanFebruary 22, 2017 4 minutes

For many people, an understanding of dram shop law begins and ends with the phrase "person sues bar." Many people have made it a point to object to this idea, considering it unfair that an establishment that serves alcohol should be held accountable for doing what they're paid to do--serving a patron.

Without looking any deeper at the subject, they deem the responsibility to lie squarely with person who chooses to drive drunk after that service. After all, he or she bought the drinks, consumed them, and chose to drive afterward. There's something slightly disingenuous about this line of thinking by anyone but a teetotaler, but regardless, any doubters should try to view the issue from a few more angles--for instance, what about a third party who played no part in the drinking, but suffered its consequences?

One example, and the reason this issue came to mind, is the recent case of 37-year-old Texan pedestrian Nathan Dirk.

February 5, 2017: Corpus Christi

According to the Corpus Christi Police Department, witnesses saw Nathan Allen Dirk in a crosswalk around 1 a.m. As he made his way across the road in the 900 block of Texan Trail near W.B. Ray High School, Dirk was struck by a vehicle and dragged approximately 200 feet. The vehicle then stopped in the road; the driver exited, looked at Dirk, then re-entered the car and fled the scene. He did not attempt to render aid or call for help. Dirk died in the street from multiple blunt-force injuries to his body.

The car and driver were described to police when they arrived at the scene; a matching vehicle was located nearby by patrolmen canvassing the area. Its driver, 56-year-old Noe Garza, was found shortly thereafter. He was charged with intoxication manslaughter and accident involving injury/death.

No further information was released by the police.

Drunk Driving Victims Deserve a Chance for Justice

Every state in the U.S. has laws to appropriately punish those who cause harm to others while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Noe Garza's charge of "intoxication manslaughter" is one example of the law's reaction to alcohol's role in a defendant's decision-making. It provides recognition that the perpetrator may not have been entirely in his right mind due to external circumstances, but it still demands his accountability.

Dram shop law is an extension of this idea; if the perpetrator had help in reaching a level of intoxication that compromised his judgment, in effect he had an accomplice in the harmful event that followed. After all, over-serving a bar patron and then allowing him behind the wheel could foreseeably result in someone getting hurt. That's a principle known formally as cause in fact, or the "but for" test--"But for" the defendant's negligence, the plaintiff would not have been injured. In the instance of Nathan Dirk, that would read something like this:

But for the driver being served to the point of impairment, he would not have struck a pedestrian in his vehicle.

Again, some people find these legal repercussions unfair, believing them to be a limitation upon an honest business just trying to make a buck. These arguments don't generally hold much water upon further consideration. When a bar or restaurant over-serves a patron, they are ignoring both the law and common sense. For the sake of profit, they are severely limiting the cognitive function of someone who is going to pilot several tons of explosion-powered steel and fiberglass upon leaving. This situation has spun out so many times that no establishment can reasonably plead ignorance of the possible consequences.

Those who remain unmoved by this argument might also want to consider the impact those unleashed drunk drivers have on innocent third parties, just minding their own business in public. The transaction between the bar and the patron, followed by the bar's release of the patron onto the road without a second thought, had nothing to do with these unwitting victims. In most cases, the people into whom the drunk driver crashes have never seen him or her before--an unfortunate twist of fate put Nathan Dirk on the crosswalk at exactly the wrong time of night.

As Grossman Law has handled more dram shop claims than almost any other Texas firm, we have seen hundreds of similar fact cases. Drivers running errands or headed to their jobs. Workers directing traffic at construction sites. Entire families--parents returning home with their kids after soccer practice--tragically affected by someone who got too "happy" during Happy Hour. We have seen all of these and more, and almost all of their stories share a common thread: They were just going about their lives the best they could when a reckless bar and a reckless drunk intervened.

Dram Shop Laws Exist for Good Reason.

Bars don't get sued just for serving drinks. Nobody's denying them the right to practice their trade; after all, nobody would endure a bar's smoke and crowds and smells and noise if they could only get a Shirley Temple. Dram shop laws are actually designed to ensure that bars ply their wares responsibly, in a way where the likelihood of corollary problems is lessened. Bars don't get sued for pouring drinks; they get sued for breaking the law by continuing to serve obviously intoxicated people. That negligence invites catastrophe, and I'm not just being melodramatic; in 2015 alone, thousands of DUI cases were logged by authorities, and the preponderance of them involved serious injury--even fatality.

I don't want to suggest that every bar is negligent in its service; that isn't true by a long shot. The vast majority of Texas bars comply with the rules, and in so doing they try to live up to their obligations as alcohol providers. A small subset just don't give a hoot about those obligations, because their business model is a simple-but-unethical "More sales means more profits, and the hell with the rest."

When such businesses demonstrate their willingness to ignore the law, how do we get them to act in the interest of the community? We ensure that their negligence has the potential to cost them a considerable amount of their own money. A bar owner may not care enough about their patrons, the community, or their agreement to sell alcohol in a legal manner, but everyone cares about their own financial well-being. Dram shop litigation acts upon that base motivation, encouraging otherwise-indifferent alcohol providers to follow the rules and promising them consequences if they do not.