Business owners achieved a victory in the Maryland legislature this month, as both the House Bill and Senate Bill introduced to establish dram shop liability were given unfavorable reports by legislative committees. Dram shop liability is a cause of action that can be asserted by plaintiffs who allege that they were injured as a result of an establishment’s sale of alcohol. The bill introduced in the Maryland legislature would have allowed for civil actions against establishments or their employees if 1) the defendant knew or should have known that a customer was visibly under the influence of alcoholic beverages; 2) the defendant could have foreseen that the customer might attempt to drive a motor vehicle; 3) the customer negligently drove a motor vehicle; and 4) the customer’s negligent driving proximately caused the damages claimed in the action.
Maryland courts have rejected attempts to assert dram shop liability, instead using a theory of premises liability to hold establishments liable in certain circumstances. E.g. Troxel v. Iguana Cantina, LLC, 201 Md. App. 476, 29 A.3d 1038 (2011). However, premises liability applies to acts or omissions on property that is under the defendant’s control. Dram shop liability seeks to hold business owners liable when an intoxicated customer negligently injures someone after leaving the premises that the business owner controls. The bills introduced in Maryland this legislative session would have allowed for dram shop liability only when an intoxicated driver caused the alleged damages. However, it is easy to see how that liability could be extended through future legislation to include such things as off-premises assaults, liability for hosts of private parties, or even serving the “habitually intoxicated” as some states do. Dram shop liability, a favorite of the plaintiffs’ bar, is an attempt to shift blame from the responsible tortfeasor to a business with “deep pockets.” While this bill is likely to be reintroduced next year, business owners are safe from such claims for now.