Local News

High Court Hears Dram-Shop Liability Case

Posted November 13, 2007 6:23 p.m. EST
Updated November 13, 2007 6:55 p.m. EST

— The state Supreme Court heard a case Tuesday that could affect the liability of every bar and restaurant in North Carolina.

A Durham County 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 last year, citing past court decisions that found forcing servers to evaluate every customer's behavior would be "unjustifiably burdensome" to business.

By law, North Carolina bars and restaurants are liable if they knowingly serve a drunk who goes on to hurt someone. But attorney Don Beskind said dram-shop liability laws should be written to make them responsible even if they don't realize the person is intoxicated until after the drinks are drained.

"When you know a patron is drunk and when you know the patron is going to drive, you can't just wave goodbye," Beskind said. "How much of an additional burden is it to ask them to offer coffee and offer to call a cab?"

Attorneys for Torero's declined to comment on the case. But they argued in court that the Supreme Court doesn't need to expand state law and reiterated the burden such a move would place on businesses.

State lawmakers have considered adding liability to bar owners, but the proposal went nowhere in the General Assembly.

Theresa Hall, who was injured in the wreck that killed her husband and still walks with a cane, said the 10-year legal battle has been exhausting.

"It's taken its toll on my family," she said.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in three to six months.