Independence Day is statistically the most DUI-accident prone day of the year. People don't drink hard just on the day itself, though--it has become a week-long celebration for some. All that alcohol creates far more serious risks than the occasional finger-flaying lesson about fireworks, and yet some unscrupulous bars are comfortable with over-serving it to those who want to knock one (or eight) back in the name of Uncle Sam. It makes me glad Texas has dram shop laws, because that complicity gets people hurt. That principle played out over the weekend leading to the Fourth, when a Houston family was seriously injured by an intoxicated driver.
What We Know About the Crash
An unidentified family was seriously hurt in a crash in north Houston in the late evening on Saturday, July 1.
According to Houston police, an intoxicated man driving a Ford Mustang ran a red light and collided with the family's small SUV around 9 p.m. The crash spun both vehicles out of control and the SUV struck a light pole in the median of the North Freeway feeder road at West Parker.
The SUV was occupied by six people total--an adult couple and four young children aged 11, 9, 8, and 18 months. All members of the family were taken to Memorial Herman hospital. Two of the young children were reported in critical condition.
The driver of the Mustang was also taken to the hospital, where he was reported in stable condition. Tests revealed that the driver was intoxicated; he will face charges.
As quickly as that, a whole family ended up in the hospital. The days surrounding Independence Day are certainly a dangerous time to be out and about, but sadly they're far from isolated when it comes to drunk driving. We see hundreds of cases year-round, and while some of those folks may have staggered out of their houses to get behind the wheel, most of them left bars after knocking back a few drinks (and then a few more), getting seriously over-served before calling it a night. Not everyone stays until closing time, either: Some call it quits while the sun's still up, and when they weave through the crowded streets in daylight hours, they pose a tremendous danger to themselves and others. Texas dram shop law ensures that bars and restaurants own their share of the blame for creating that hazard, day or night. Some may not understand why a bar should be held responsible for injuries caused by someone they helped intoxicate, but it makes sense for several reasons.
This Is Why Dram Shop Laws Exist.
It might seem like an unfair impediment to make bars stop serving excess booze to those who want it. In the eyes of dram shop law opponents (mostly bar owners and liquor lobbyists, curiously enough), a thirsty adult should be able to drink until he runs out of cash or consciousness. Maybe in some "nothing but bootstraps" libertarian utopia no mean old government would halt the flow of alcohol to anyone who was still able to slur out the word "whiskey." Here's the problem, though: drunk people aren't just dangers to themselves. In some cases personal liberty must be curtailed when it threatens the safety of others, and "freedom to drive drunk" doubtlessly belongs on that list. "The right to (drunkenly) swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose," as the saying (sort of) goes.
That's why dram shop law exists. Bars should be held responsible for refilling a patron's glass too many times, because doing so directly contravenes state law. For decades now, Texan establishments that serve alcohol haven't been allowed to continue pouring drinks for obviously intoxicated people. The ability to sue a bar for damages when they create dangerous circumstances with over-serving serves a punitive purpose, because literally no establishment that serves alcohol in the Lone Star State can plead ignorance of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.
Some might more cynically suggest that dram shop law is profit-motivated because alcohol providers have deeper pockets than drunk drivers. While it's true that there's a better chance of making a plaintiff whole if a business can be named as a defendant, it seems a tad cold-hearted to suggest that gravely-injured people are only interested in reaching for the biggest slice of the pie they can get. It stands to reason that bars and restaurants will have greater assets than most individual Joe Sixpack defendants, and given the expenses of getting one's life back on track after a wreck, those assets can be vital.
For example: I reviewed a case last week with one of the firm's paralegals. It was a simple fender-bender--the kind that clogs up traffic on the tollway every couple of days in Dallas. I'm glad to say that no one was killed, but the client was injured and needed medical attention. For two nights' worth of consultation and observation and a takeaway painkiller prescription, she faced a total bill of $52,000. That may sound like some pithy commentary about a bloated and extortionate health care system, but I'm just relaying facts. She was charged a ludicrous amount, and she needed to be made whole. If she, a single victim, was charged that much, I shudder to think what the medical bills of a family of six--two of whom were critically injured during the crash--will look like by the time they're all up and about again.
A bar serving its patrons with reckless abandon needs to be held accountable for any damage caused by the person they liquored up. If it seems like the burden of saying "no more, thank you" should fall squarely on the drinking party, then I salute you for never having noticed that every successive drink seems like a better idea than the last. Besides that, bar staff occasionally encourage patrons to get another round, and the drunker those patrons are the more likely it is they'll say yes. It's not unfair to these establishments to punish them for flouting the law, and if they find that their punishment is costly, may it serve as a good deterrent from continuing to endanger the public at large.