In Charlotte, North Carolina, a tragic drunk driving accident critically injured a young couple and claimed the lives of their unborn child and the drunk driver. Now, over two years later, a jury in a civil suit has ruled that the restaurant that served the drunk driver was negligent and awarded the young couple $1.7 million.
The verdict not only proved costly to Eddie’s Place, the restaurant that was sued, but shines a spotlight on a set of laws created to prevent restaurants and bars from serving alcohol to patrons already intoxicated. It also has set a precedent for future lawsuits that may occur in other states.
On October 29th, 2010, Matt Eastridge and his six-month pregnant wife, Meredith, were driving home when a drunk driver slammed into their Toyota RAV4. Police say the driver, David Huffman, had a BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) that was roughly three times the legal limit and was driving faster than 100 mph when he crashed into the Eastridge’s vehicle. The 25-year-old driver had just left Eddie’s Place Restaurant and Bar in south Charlotte and was reported to have been served at least 10 drinks.
Recently, the young couple had won a civil suit filed against Eddie’s Place and the jury awarded them $1.7 million as they felt the restaurant was careless in serving alcohol to someone it knew or should have suspected was drunk.
The 32-year-old Matt Eastridge said he was “disgusted” upon learning that Huffman was served “the equivalent of 15 drinks in two hours.” He also said that he and his wife, also 32, had just finished using an ATM and was accelerating in their vehicle. “Then we got smashed,” he says. “We saw just enough to say, ‘What’s that guy doing?’ By the time we said this, it was over.”
Both ended up in a hospital for over a month where Meredith lost 40% of her blood and the baby. They also required lengthy therapy and had extensive surgeries. Matt said, “Mentally, it was very difficult. Obviously, it was very challenging physically.”
The attorney for Eddie’s Place, Rick Pinto, admitted that Huffman was given 10 drinks over a two-hour and 10-minute period. However, employees at the restaurant made an arrangement to get him a ride with another customer who lived in the same apartment complex. He said, “He accepted it and then went and drove his own car anyway.”
According to Pinto, an investigation by the Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board said the restaurant stopped serving Huffman any alcohol after they noticed he was “visibly intoxicated,” and that they strive to comply with laws that state not to serve patrons who are intoxicated or underage. Pinto added, “They’ve never, ever been cited for an alcohol-related violation, and they’ve been in business for 15 years.”
The issue is that there is a different standard for criminal liability then there is for legal liability. The Eastridge’s focused their lawsuit under North Carolina’s law which establishes the liability of businesses that serve alcohol to obviously drunk or underage people who end up causing injury or death to others in alcohol-related accidents.
Laws that are similar, known as dram shop laws, are on the books in some form in every state but seven. Dram shop or dramshop is a legal term in the United States that refers to a tavern, a bar or the like where alcoholic beverages are sold. Dram shop liability refers to the governing law that establishes the liability of liquor stores, taverns and commercial establishments that serve alcoholic beverages.
The laws establish the liability these places have after selling alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons or minors that then cause injury or death to third-parties (those not having a relationship to the bar) as a result of alcohol-related car crashes and other accidents.
Unfortunately, the laws widely vary and accordingly to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), 31 states end up treating individual hosts who give alcohol to clearly drunk individuals with liability similar to restaurants and bars.
There are various limits to these laws in 24 states. The Eastridges’ attorney, Charles Monnett, feels that, “The national ramifications of this problem are enormous. In our research, we found that in 2010, there were about 10,000 drunk driving deaths in the U.S. Fifty percent of those folks were coming directly from a bar or restaurant where they were over-served.”
The other side looks differently at dram shop laws as they do not favor them. There is a common criticism of these laws in that it takes away any personal responsibility, which includes certain times that the drunk driver is allowed to file a lawsuit. Pinto also points out some laws, like North Carolina’s, is not clear and has too many grey areas. “It would be helpful in our state if the law was more clear. The law is, you can’t serve someone who is visibly intoxicated when you have reason to believe they are going to drive. It’s not our duty to make sure no one ever leaves a restaurant with more than .08 alcohol in their system. That’s not what the law is. But that may be what this jury decided.”
Dram Shop Laws have both supporters and non-supporters that feel there side is the right one. President Jan Withers of MADD feels that the laws help to cut down on excessive and illegal consumption, reduce drunken driving crashes and increase to the public the impact of over-serving to patrons. She says, “Dram shop laws are important because they encourage restaurants and bars to be responsible in serving alcohol. Establishments need to take this responsibility seriously. These laws also help provide justice for victims of drunk driving who are faced with the tremendous financial burden that follows a death or serious injury.”
Dram Shop Law expert Richard Smith, a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein, feels that the .08 blood-alcohol-content standard that is used in criminal cases “is meaningless in civil liability.” He says, “In most states, the patron has to be ‘visibly intoxicated’ at the time of service. The critical moment is when the bartender looks at a person and makes an evaluation. It really is the moment of truth. If you are a bar or restaurant, you need to know what the law is in your state. And most importantly, you need to train your servers and bartenders about the law in your state.”
Considering that the laws vary from state-to-state, dram shop laws will be out more in the public eye as more cases come to fruition. The recent lawsuit will intensify the debate, now that there has been established a legal precedent. As for the Eastridges, they now have a 6-month-old daughter named Sloane. Yet, they continue to be haunted by the events that occurred on that night in October over two years ago. According to Matt, “My wife and I would trade any dollar amount to have this not happen, and still have our son.”