Maryland is one of only a few states that does not have a dram shop liability law. Dram shop laws can hold a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol liable for the actions of a patron who becomes impaired at their location and then cause injuries and/or property damage. This scenario is most common where a customer gets drunk and gets into a car accident.
Common law did not contain such a third-party liability provision; however, the U.S. Supreme Court allows for states to craft many of their own liquor-related laws. For example, in Pennsylvania, the defendant may be liable if they sold or provided alcohol to a customer who was “visibly intoxicated” who then harms a guiltless third-party.
For over 60 years, courts in Maryland have considered dram shop laws. In the State v. Hatfield in 1951, a minor drank at a bar and then struck and killed another driver. The family of the deceased pursued a claim against the tavern; however, a Baltimore court dismissed the case, ruling the accident was the result of the minor’s negligence—not the tavern’s. On appeal, the court affirmed the decision by citing that common law did not recognize such liability. Years later, the Court of Appeals heard a case with a very similar set of circumstances in Felder v. Butler. The court cited the Hatfield ruling and again allowed for a dismissal.
Appellate courts again encountered a dram shop liability action in 2000 in Wright v. Sue & Charles Inc., where a minor bought liquor from a retailer and later died in a fatal auto accident. In this case, the parents of the minor filed a claim of wrongful death against the liquor store. The court explained that Maryland courts had been “clear and unambiguous”. They ruled the minor both purchased and consumed the alcohol voluntarily. The court explained that individuals are responsible for making the choice to drink and that liquor stores are not liable and they stated that such a change to current law would need to be initiated by legislators.
Legislative activity began in 2011 with House Bill 1120 that would have made vendors of alcohol responsible if the evidence is clear that the damages were caused as a result of alcohol provided to either those under the legal drinking age or who are “visibly intoxicated”. HB1120 was introduced to the House Judiciary Committee–who took no further action. In 2016, House Bill 345 was introduced titled “Wrongfully Selling or Furnishing Alcoholic Beverages” which would impose liability if proven that:
- The owner or their employee was aware (or should have been) that the guest was intoxicated
- The owner or their employee was aware (or should have been) that the guest would attempt to drive while intoxicated
- That the intoxicated individual drove a vehicle
- That the intoxicated individual caused the damages
In keeping with tradition, House Bill 345 failed and there has yet to be any legislative or judicial activity regarding this law yet in 2017.
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