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Supreme Court: Bars not liable for drunk drivers

Posted March 20, 2009
Updated March 24, 2009

— The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that businesses aren't bound by law to stop someone from driving drunk.

In a split decision, the court distinguished liability for bars across the state. By law, an establishment cannot knowingly serve a drunk who goes on to hurt someone, but the ruling means restaurants and bars aren't obligated to step in and prevent someone from driving drunk.

The case stems from a Durham County case in which a jury found Torero's II, a Mexican restaurant, responsible in the 1997 death of Michael Hall. William Terry drank heavily at Torero's before driving off and causing the wreck that killed Hall.

Hall's widow, Theresa Hall, sued for negligence and was awarded more than $1.2 million in 2004, but a judge set aside the verdict and award. The state Court of Appeals affirmed the judge's ruling, citing past court decisions that found forcing servers to evaluate every customer's behavior would be "unjustifiably burdensome" to business.

The high court upheld the previous rulings. Because justices split 3-3, the Court of Appeals ruling remains in place.

Some state lawmakers have considered adding liability to bar owners, but the proposal has gone nowhere in the General Assembly.

38 Comments

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  • Eduardo1 Mar 27, 11:53 a.m.

    I agree with the Supreme Court ruling. I also feel that the driver that is legally drunk or impaired, should be charged with a felony crime. Someone dies, charge with FELONY murder. Someone is has lost limbs or paralyzed, charge attempted murder and so on. The sentence should be AUTOMATIC incarceration.

  • gordonbabe Mar 27, 11:46 a.m.

    Absolutely right. Besides, if they tried to cut someone off... have you ever witnessed how violent a drunk can get when the barkeep tries to cut them off? Some drunks are silly, some happy, some sad, but some are just plain angry & violent drunks! There's no telling what they'll do with total disregard to anyone else's safety!

  • TheLibertine Mar 27, 10:14 a.m.

    Well at least there's one ruling for a change that doesn't support the nanny state. When did adults stop being adults?

  • itirksmest8 Mar 27, 9:44 a.m.

    I hate it for the families, but if uve ever been in a crowded bar, you know the bartenders are not serving everyone face to face...sometimes someone orders several drinks for their friends, etc...
    Also, I had a friend who blew a .25 and he seriously held his liquor well, and you wouldnt have been able to tell he was drunk....what then?

  • salouisburg Mar 23, 6:34 p.m.

    I wonder how many of us would feel this way if this were a family member of ours. Deep down if you knew that a place of business had allowed an individual to continually drink without eating for over 4 hours, would you feel that way once you found out that had been allowed? Certainly a drunken driver should be held responsible. Thank goodness there are some responsible restuarant/bar owners out there. How many out there are aware that this same restuarant, since the crash, lost its ABC license for serving a minor(s). So, one brother just sold it to another brother who reapplied and once again, this business had its ABC license back. How many of you know that the woman who filed the suit had to sit in a vehicle waiting to be cut out with her husband's body on her laying there while he was drowning in his own blood? So laugh it up! Serve the whole house; hopefully it won't be your spouse, finance, parents or child that pays the bill. And that my friends, is one to grow on.

  • supernik87 Mar 23, 1:44 p.m.

    I should also add though that when someone is visibly drunk, in accordance to already existing laws, the bars should stop serving alcohol to that person. Then take the actions I mentioned to try and stop them from driving drunk.

  • supernik87 Mar 23, 1:41 p.m.

    I strongly disagree with the outcome of this case. As a plaintiff in the case I can say that the intentions of this case are constantly misconstrued. I feel that bars have a responsibility to the public to help prevent unnecessary deaths. When someone goes into a restaurant such as McDonald's and eats himself into obesity, that is his problem ONLY, it hurts no one but himself. However, when someone goes into a bar, gets drunk, and then drives, he is a danger to everyone else on the road, which is EVERYONE'S problem.

    All we were asking is that bars take reasonable actions to prevent a crime. In NO WAY are we asking bars forcefully take keys or physically restrain anyone, as these actions would be criminal larceny and kidnapping. We are simply asking bars to ASK for keys or OFFER to call a cab for someone who is drunk. If the patron refuses and drives away, then we ask that the bar simply call 911. That is all. Once this is done, their part is done and liability would be waived.

  • Piny tek Mar 23, 1:17 p.m.

    Good ruling. My friend is a bartender and got punched on the face when he refused to serve a drank more buzz. He got several stitches on his lips.

  • didisaythat Mar 23, 1:00 p.m.

    I agree with the ruling. Personal responsability. This is the same as going after the gun manufacturers or the stores that sell guns and ammo. Go after the person that did the action.

  • artist Mar 23, 10:11 a.m.

    I have mixed feelings about this ruling. Looks like the return of Happy Hour is just around the corner. So, now establishments are wide open to make as much money as possible on every tab - allowing those last few drinks to up the bill by 25 bucks... and no responsibility for the aftermath. Get em' drunk and get em' off the property. You would not be allowed to go to the ABC store drunk and get another bottle - why would you be allowed to do this at any establishment?

    Also, if you put the entire responsibility of controlling consumption on a "drunk" person, then the law should be absolute. If you kill/injure another person as the result of driving intoxicated.. you should have a minimum of 10 years in jail and restitution to the victim/s. Our laws are too lax to leave the responsibility in the hands of a drunk. We need to get serious about the punishment!

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