Local News

State's High Court to Consider Dram-Shop Liability Laws

Posted April 25, 2007 6:54 p.m. EDT
Updated April 25, 2007 8:51 p.m. EDT

— What responsibility do bars and restaurants have to keep drunken drivers off the roads?

The North Carolina Supreme Court is taking up the debate to better define dram-shop liability laws.

The case is based on a 2004 case in Durham in which a jury found the restaurant Torero's II financially liable in the death of Michael Hall. A Torero's customer who left the restaurant drunk killed Hall in 1997.

Hall's widow, Theresa Hall, sued for negligence and was awarded more than $1 million, but Durham County Superior Court Judge Abraham Jones set aside the verdict.

Hall then took the case to the state Supreme Court.

"They have a responsibility to not allow someone to walk out of the door of their premises after they've served them all evening long and watch them get behind the wheel of a car, knowing the person is drunk," said attorney Jay Ferguson.

Right now, state law only requires a bar to stop serving someone they know is drunk. Ferguson, though, argued that if an establishment creates a situation (such as a drunken customer), then it is the establishment's responsibility to protect the public.

If the state Supreme Court rules in Hall's favor, it could mean bars and restaurants would be legally obligated to take the keys from a drunken customer or make sure the customer physically gets in a cab to go home.

"I think the individual is responsible," bar owner Gene Devine said. "Those situations are tough."

DeVine said bartenders already cut off drunks and offer them coffee or a cab. He believes placing responsibility for what a person does when they leave is unfair.

"If you actually did that, you'd shrink the population of restaurants and bars, because they couldn't afford the insurance," DeVine said.

"This case is going to put every single bar on notice," Ferguson said. "When they create a hazardous situation, they've got to do something to protect the public."

The Supreme Court could decide the issue by the end of the year.

Chris Derrenbacher, one of the attorneys representing Torero's II, said he expects to file a brief with the state Supreme Court within 30 days.