Thinking About Filing A Dram Shop Lawsuit Against Mi Cocina? Here's What You Need to Know
My firm has sued more bars for negligent over-service than anybody else in Texas. While there may be wide awareness about the dangers of drunk driving, I don't feel as though the contributions made by bars and restaurants who fail in their legal obligation to serve alcohol responsibly get nearly the attention they should. To raise awareness about their role among the general public, I took the time to look through the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's complaint database and report what I found. If you would like to talk about a possible Dram Shop case, please give me a call at (855) 326-0000.
Mi Cocina (Spanish for "My Kitchen") was founded in 1991 by a group of Dallas investors and Tex-Mex restauranteur Michael "Mico" Rodriguez. The first small location opened in the Dallas neighborhood of Preston Forest, but things didn't really start to take off until the chain opened its second location in prestigious Highland Park in '93.
Since then the restaurant has opened a few more locations in Texas, with plans to go nationwide. Its owners and operators, M Crowd Restaurant Group, were at one time pulling in annual revenue between 80 and 100 million dollars. Some internal strife with Mr. Rodriguez in the late 2000's made that figure dip for a while, but the restaurants under the M Crowd umbrella (Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, and The Mercury) are still going strong.
I'm looking specifically at Mi Cocina today. As it turns out, the TABC has records of thirteen investigations against various Mi Cocina locations over the last few years. That's not an atrocious track record, but it's still worth taking a look at the nature of the complaints that took them there.
Important note: A complaint against or investigation of Mi Cocina doesn't indicate its guilt or imply any patterns of TABC violations. Conversely, if investigators don't find evidence that a location violated the law, that doesn't mean the alleged violation did not take place. It's often tough to find proof that some kinds of criminal or administrative violations took place. By compiling this list, I'm not accusing Mi Cocina of any specific misbehavior; I'm simply reporting incidents put on the TABC's radar for one reason or another by concerned citizens and law enforcement agencies.
TABC Investigations of Mi Cocina Locations Since 2008
Dallas - 18352 Dallas Parkway Suite 100
3/23/2010: The sole complaint made against this location came from a law enforcement agency, who submitted a complaint that Mi Cocina had served alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person on this date.
This is a serious offense if it can be proven; in the event that TABC investigators find evidence of service to an intoxicated individual, establishments can be punished in a series of ways, from a simple warning to a hefty civil penalty. Repeat offenders might even suffer suspension or cancellation of their license to operate, though none of these steps seem to have been taken against this Mi Cocina.
In this specific instance, investigators seem not to have found enough evidence to pursue any further action against this location. The complaint was closed without disposition on 4/26/2010.
Highland Park - 77 Highland Park Village
5/23/2014: A citizen contacted the TABC to complain that the Highland Park location of Mi Cocina appeared to serve alcohol to a minor.
This is a difficult allegation to make stick unless there were photographic or video evidence produced of a person obviously under the age of 21 consuming clearly-labeled alcoholic beverages. While I think it's a risky practice in some ways, many restaurants are willing to pour "virgin" versions of some of their popular cocktails so kids can try what Mommy and Daddy are having. Furthermore, some people just have youthful faces long into their early adulthood.
These points aren't meant to defend or excuse Mi Cocina; someone might actually have seen a teen with a beer or a highball, and if so, the restaurant's management certainly should have faced consequences for allowing that to happen. I'm only noting that it's tough to find conclusive evidence that someone who can't legally drink was served alcohol. Perhaps this was what led the TABC to close their investigation of this complaint without further action on 7/4/2014.
4/06/2017: Another citizen complaint brought investigators back to this location for allegations that Mi Cocina had once again served alcohol to a minor.
It's a little concerning to see repeat allegations of this nature at the same location, but then again the complaints were registered by citizens three years apart and may vary widely in circumstances. In 2014 a restaurant patron may have seen a precocious youngster steal a sip of a Mambo Taxi; in 2017 a witness could have seen a sixteen-year-old toasting with a bottle of Dos Equis. Both would be filed the same way on the relatively vague complaint tickets archived by the TABC.
Whatever the underlying circumstances that actually sparked the complaint, the TABC was unable to find sufficient evidence of any infraction to take further action. The ticket was therefore closed without disposition on 6/2/2017.
Dallas - 7215 Skillman Street Suite 328
10/14/2010: This location's sole recorded complaint involved the service of alcohol to a minor and was filed by a citizen.
Déjà vu, right? Complaints involving minors are an oddly common thread to Mi Cocina's relationship with the TABC. However, allegations involving simple acts of service, be they to minors or to intoxicated patrons, are often hard to trace unless they develop into further issues. If a kid gets drunk or an over-served person starts a fight, there's more for the TABC to look into.
It doesn't appear there were further issues beyond whatever the citizen initially witnessed. The TABC closed the ticket without disposition on 10/20/2010. Six days is actually a very swift turnaround for an investigation; they normally take over a month. That may suggest that the complaint was either retracted or conclusive evidence was quickly found showing that the restaurant hadn't committed any offenses.
12/11/2017: A citizen contacted the TABC to allege this location served alcohol to a minor, as well as complaining that the restaurant sold more alcohol to an intoxicated person.
It seems in this case that there was a clear chain of evidence proving the allegations of service to a minor in a more conclusive way than with the previous complaint, as the TABC investigation log shows administrative action was taken against Mi Cocina within a week of the investigation being opened. The TABC would likely have slapped the restaurant with a hefty fine or maybe even suspended its license except for its "restrained disposition" program.
This relates directly to Safe Harbor laws, which permit the TABC to defer any action so long as a business can prove its employees were adequately trained and certified to dispense or sell alcohol. It's meant to be an allowance for otherwise-trained employees to make mistakes without necessarily punishing the entire business. The negligent employee might still face charges if the screwup is bad enough, but the TABC "restrains" its action against the restaurant on the understanding that these behaviors won't be repeated.
Plano - 4001 Preston Road Suite 502
7/15/2011: A law enforcement agency reported an alleged breach of the peace to the TABC on this date, as well as allegations that they served alcohol to an intoxicated person.
These two categories of complaint often go hand in hand; as I'm sure anyone can imagine, severely intoxicated people have serious problems with impulse control. There's a lot of opportunity to get not just loud, but combative, in a setting where alcohol is flowing too freely. Breaches of the peace can take a lot of forms but are generally some kind of physical altercation; the fact that management felt it necessary to call the police reinforces that idea.
Mi Cocina was issued a warning by the TABC--not for the over-service or the fight, specifically, but rather for their failure to report the breach of the peace in the legally-required amount of time. When police or emergency personnel are called to an establishment for an alcohol-related issue, the bar or restaurant has up to five days to report it to the TABC or face administrative penalties. Based on the dates provided in the investigation, Mi Cocina sat on this particular disturbance for almost a month without speaking up.
Plano - 5760 Legacy Drive Suite B7
2/09/2013: The TABC received information from a law enforcement agency that this location had allegedly permitted a minor to possess and/or consume alcohol on its premises. This differs slightly from the allegations at other locations because it suggests the minor may have brought in his or her own alcohol and consumed it, rather than being served or sold any by Mi Cocina itself.
Permitting a minor to drink on the premises of one's business is still a violation even if that alcohol wasn't supplied by the business itself, but it's also very hard to prove. The TABC declined to take any action and swiftly closed the complaint without disposition on 2/13/2013.
8/18/2015: The TABC was notified by a law enforcement agency that this Mi Cocina location allegedly sold or served alcohol to a minor.
Once again, investigators did manage to find sufficient evidence that the restaurant served alcohol to an underage person. That doesn't necessarily mean they filled a baby bottle with sangria or anything; it probably just means a server failed to check a 19-year-old's ID before bringing him or her a margarita.
The TABC record indicates that once again the agency served up a "restrained" disposition, meaning that the restaurant was able to show that it went to the lengths required by law to train its staff appropriately. Because it was successfully able to use a Safe Harbor defense, the TABC didn't take any administrative action against the location.
1/31/2017: A law enforcement agency reported a possible "Intoxicated Licensee/Permittee," meaning a drunk employee, to the TABC on this date.
It's interesting that the Legacy location seems only to have reports from the cops, since the bulk of TABC complaints are submitted by citizens. Regardless, TABC investigators didn't find sufficient evidence of a drunk employee to take any dispositive action. The complaint was closed after a normal investigation on 3/10/2017.
07/14/2018: Just over a month ago police informed the TABC of two allegations regarding this location: selling alcohol to a minor and selling alcohol to an intoxicated person.
As I mentioned before, the released investigation reports are pretty sparse on details. The two reported events could be separate from one another, but there's a possibility they were linked and Mi Cocina participated in over-serving a minor. If proven, that would be a very serious charge.
The TABC investigation was closed without further action in just under a month on 8/05/2018, suggesting the agency may not have had much helpful information to begin with and couldn't locate enough evidence to make any administrative action stick.
Dallas - 3699 McKinney Avenue Building A Ste 200
8/08/2008: A citizen filed a complaint with the TABC that this location sold alcohol to an intoxicated person.
If investigators could conclusively show that a particular patron was beyond his or her limit but was still sold alcohol, Mi Cocina would likely have faced a fine or a least a written warning. Punishments like those may not seem too serious, but they serve as a notice to a bar or restaurant that it's on the radar and further slips will be met with far more serious measures.
It seems however that the TABC was unable to find sufficient evidence to merit any criminal or administrative action directed at this location, and the complaint was closed on 8/29/2008 without disposition.
9/30/2013: A second complaint was filed by a citizen (several years after the last one) who alleged that this Mi Cocina served alcohol to a minor.
The TABC conducted a two-month investigation but seems not to have found enough grounds to take dispositive action against the location. The case was closed without administrative action on 12/05/2013.
College Station - 12675 Fm 2154
[Note: I include this location in my list only because the TABC mistakenly did, but in my research I learned that the College Station "Mi Cocina's" were actually a small trio of unaffiliated restaurants. When the Tex-Mex chain learned about it they filed a copyright lawsuit against the Aggie locations and won. The College Station restaurants changed their name to "Polly's Cocina" to avoid further troubles, though it seems two of the three may have shut down permanently. Because they're legally unrelated to the chain we're looking at, I won't delve into their separate history.]
Dallas Galleria - 13350 Dallas Parkway Suite 100
1/20/2016: A citizen filed a complaint with the TABC that doesn't necessarily seem like it falls under their purview, but I could be mistaken.
The bulk of the complaint seems to involve Mi Cocina allowing a customer to possess drugs of some kind on their premises. The TABC's main concern is the supply and sale of alcohol more than policing drug traffic--that's more of a police matter--but alcohol is at its heart a drug, so maybe the concerned citizen wasn't sure if they would want to know about Mi Cocina's alleged misstep.
Beyond that the restaurant was apparently investigated for "Misc. Violations," a catch-all category with a lot of possible interpretations. Whatever they might have specifically meant in this case, the TABC only spent four days investigating the complaint before closing the file without disposition. In their defense, unless the drug-possessor openly did drugs with a restaurant employee it would be hard to take any action against Mi Cocina in a situation like this.
Texas Law Allows Those Harmed by Over-service to Sue Bad Bars
If you're interested in learning more about Texas Dram Shop/liquor liability law, we encourage you to peruse our detailed article on the subject.