Posted on Sep 14, 2016

A September 5, 2016 article in the Columbia State describes South Carolina lawsuits against bars serving drunk customers who then drive off and cause deadly traffic accidents. The article refers to “a sad and growing list of South Carolinians killed by drunks who leave bars too intoxicated to drive safely.” The report summarizes a few cases across the state where victims have sued bars for these crashes, alleging the bar knowingly kept serving alcohol to a person unfit to drive.

Why This Might Not Be What You Think

These lawsuits aren’t “jackpot justice.” These suits—and the plaintiffs behind them—are  holding businesses accountable when they could avert an avoidable tragedy, but choose not to.

We all know drinking and driving kills. When part of your business is serving alcohol to folks who drive to get to you, it’s your job to keep innocent people safe by just saying no. Bars and restaurants can end this threat by cutting off customers who show signs of intoxication…and for drunk customers, refusing to serve them and making sure they don’t drive.

In South Carolina, the industry recognizes the problem. The article quotes the president of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association as stating many bars “know they can do better in training staff members to recognize and manage customers who are showing signs of intoxication.” So they do know better. But nothing changes because training costs money. And more drinks means more profits. Wagging fingers and shaking heads won’t work here.

Lawsuits Can Change The Culture

A lawsuit assesses responsibility in the only meaningful way a business can understand—by hitting it in the pocketbook. And maybe this rash of lawsuits is helping. For the second year, the industry seeks passage of a law requiring mandatory training of bar workers to stop serving intoxicated customers. The law would put our state in line with 17 other states. But the jury’s still out in the legislature—last year, the bill died in committee.

Winning These Suits Isn’t “Made To Order”

For victims, getting compensated from these lawsuits can be hard because the law actually favors the bar. The victim must prove the bar knew or should have known its customer needed to be cut off. The article quotes one lawyer handling these cases stating that it often requires video surveillance evidence, electronic credit card receipt evidence showing the time each drink got served, and witnesses who can attest to the customer’s visible intoxication at the bar.

And the article doesn’t address what might be the biggest barrier to recovery for victims: many bars have no insurance. Shockingly, despite the danger these establishments can create, there is no legal requirement for them to have insurance to protect innocent victims they put in harm’s way.

To me, that’s just wrong. The legislature forces us to have insurance when we drive sober—for good reason. Driving is dangerous. There’s just no way a business that creates the known risk of drunk driving shouldn’t be required to own insurance to compensate innocent victims for that risk.

Still, as stated by the lawyer in the article, we clearly can’t let the industry police itself. He points out bar workers are often young and don’t understand the devastating consequences of over-serving. I’d add that bartenders and wait staff are often overworked—to keep costs down and profits up—making it easier for them to overlook intoxication. Also, pleasing the customer with several drinks can also lead to higher tips, so staff has a higher incentive to keep serving.

The Best Way, But Not The Perfect Way

Sadly, lawsuits can be the only meaningful penalty a business like a bar can understand. And it’s not just a “payday” for grieving families or wounded victims. Learn more about the purpose of wrongful death settlements and how we evaluate injury settlements.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.