Ruling could make the roads safer for everyone
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
RALEIGH – A North Carolina Supreme Court ruling expected later this summer could send a strong message to bartenders regarding their responsible serving of alcohol. At least that’s the hope of plaintiff Theresa Hall, whose husband, Mike, was killed more than a decade ago when a drunk driver slammed into the couple’s vehicle just minutes after leaving a Durham bar.
According to documents filed in the case, William S. Terry was served alcohol at Toreros until about 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1997, when he left on foot to run an errand at a nearby grocery, and then returned a half hour later to finish a drink he had left on the bar. When he attempted to order more alcohol, bartender Lisa McBroom told Terry she had “called last call” while he was away and that alcohol was no longer being served. Terry took a sip from another customer’s drink and tried again to order more before getting in his vehicle around 10:30 p.m. and driving away. He had traveled less than a mile when he crossed the center line, killing Michael Hall and seriously injuring Theresa Hall.
Though Terry was the one driving, the question the state’s Supreme Court has to decide is whether or not Toreros II, the Mexican restaurant where he drank for several hours that evening, should have done something to prevent their intoxicated customer from winding up behind the wheel.
“There were a lot of measures the restaurant could have taken and should have taken to prevent this and they didn’t take them in this case,” said Theresa Hall’s attorney Jay Ferguson, emphasizing the principle of “due care.”
A jury agreed that Toreros was negligent in 2004, awarding Hall and her husband’s estate $1.24 million in damages. But the verdict was set aside by Judge Abraham Jones in an opinion later upheld by the Court of Appeals.
The N.C. Supreme Court agreed to a discretionary review of the case and heard arguments late last year. If justices rule to let the jury’s verdict stand, it would send a clear message to restaurants and bars that they cannot enjoy the profits of serving a patron drink after drink and then deny any responsibility for his actions once he steps out the door.
Ferguson said a ruling in Hall’s favor would make the roads safer for everybody.
“There are a lot of intoxicated motorists leaving bars. I’ve seen a lot of cases like this. Oftentimes it’s hard to figure out which bar the person left from,” he said.
North Carolina’s dram shop law makes it illegal for anyone to “knowingly sell or give alcoholic beverages to any person who is intoxicated.”
In the Hall case, the jury found that at the time of service of the last drink, the bartender may not have known that Terry was intoxicated, but that later she saw visual signs of impairment and did not take any action to prevent him from driving away.
But Judge Jones and the Appeals Court applied the dram shop law in its most narrow sense, ruling that “there is no legal duty by a commercial provider of alcohol in North Carolina after service of the final drink by the defendant,” an interpretation that, if upheld, would create a large loophole for bars.
“All they have to say is ‘I didn’t know the person was impaired when I served that last drink,’ and then the victim has to prove what a bartender knew,” Ferguson said. “In reality, the whole case really should be common sense, if a bartender sees someone very intoxicated they should not let them leave.”
“We’re not arguing that the employee should physically restrain the patron. There are a lot of other ways they can handle it – offering food, offering a non-alcoholic drink, calling a cab for the person, and if they insist on leaving drunk, calling 911” he added. “These are not new ideas for bars; professional bartenders are trained to do this.”
Ferguson said the Hall case included substantial evidence that Terry was very impaired and that McBroom admitted that she thought he was “messed up” but did not take precautionary action to keep him from driving.
The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association has weighed in on the case in support of Toreros, part of a seven-unit chain in the Raleigh-Durham area. According to the “Nation’s Restaurant News,” a lobbyist for the association believes holding restaurants accountable for the actions of drunken patrons is akin to making them responsible for their customers’ emotions.
“What if a person is really angry? Do you have an obligation to stop him from driving too? Today it’s alcohol; tomorrow it’s an angry spouse,” lobbyist T. Jerry Williams told the publication in 2004.
But the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, points out one of several fallacies in that comparison.
“Bars don’t make money off of people’s anger, but they do make a profit when customers drink,” Creech said. “When the bar makes a business decision to serve a person enough alcohol for him to become intoxicated, they have to take action to protect the public from the hazard that they have taken a role in creating.”
Ferguson said responsible restaurateurs should not oppose strong enforcement of the dram shop law as it would only effect establishments that are serving irresponsibly.