Maryland Taverns Shielded from Liability Caused by Intoxicated Patrons — For Now

Posted on by James Lewis in Litigation.

In Warr v. JMGM Group, LLC, 433 Md. 170 (2013), the Court of Appeals of Maryland reaffirmed that taverns, bars or others who serve alcohol are not liable for serving visibly intoxicated patrons who thereafter cause automobile accidents.  In Warr, Michael Eaton spent approximately six (6) hours at Dogfish Head Alehouse drinking roughly twenty-one alcoholic drinks, and he became “violent and aggressive.”  While Mr. Eaton was being served at Dogfish Head Alehouse, he was “‘clearly intoxicated.’”  Mr. Eaton left the bar and was traveling between eighty-eight (88) to ninety-eight (98) miles per hour when he struck another vehicle, which caused injuries to Cortavia M. Harris and the death of Jazimen Harris, a ten-year-old girl.

William J. Warr, Jr. and Angela T. Warr brought this action for their own injuries, their daughter Cortavia M. Harris’ injuries, and their daughter Jazimen Harris’ death against Dogfish Head Alehouse, and argued that dram-shop liability (a tavern owes a duty to third persons when it serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person) as their theory of recovery.  Judge Eric M. Johnson of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County granted the Motion for Summary Judgment on behalf of Dogfish Head Alehouse, which eliminated the cause of action before trial, because he was bound by the precedent that Maryland does not recognize dram-shop liability.

Writing for the majority in Warr, Judge Battaglia noted that the inquiry is “whether the person or entity sued had control over the conduct of the third party who caused the harm by virtue of some special relationship.”  In Warr, the Plaintiffs were unable to establish any relationship with the tavern or identify control by the tavern over Mr. Eaton’s conduct when he left Dogfish Head Alehouse.  Moreover, the Court declined to recognize a duty on the part of Dogfish Head Alehouse because “‘[h]uman beings, drunk or sober, are responsible for their own torts.’”  Furthermore, the majority would not recognize dram-shop liability on the basis of public policy because the Maryland Legislature is better suited to create law that is rooted in public policy.

In a powerful dissent written by Judge Adkins, she identified statistics on drunk driving and deaths from “impaired-driving-related crashes” in Maryland.  She also cited statistics that suggest fourteen (14) lives could be saved every year in Maryland with the imposition of dram-shop liability.  The dissent also identified, among other things, a standard to be applied in these cases, the duty owed to third persons, and the foreseeability of harm when a tavern serves a visibly intoxicated person; all under the backdrop that public policy has shifted in Maryland, and the Court should act because of the “thirty-two years of inaction by the General Assembly.”

The decision in Warr was four to three, with Chief Judge Bell and Judges Battaglia, Greene, and Barbera for the majority, and Judges Harrell, Adkins, and McDonald for the minority.  Chief Judge Bell “participated in the hearing, in the conference in regard to its decision and in the adoption of the opinion, but he had retired from the Court prior to the filing of the opinion.”

Judge Barbera has since been elevated to Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, and Judge Watts (formerly on the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland) has filled the vacancy on the Court of Appeals of Maryland.  Of the seven Judges on the Court of Appeals of Maryland, six of them have now made their opinions known on the issue of dram-shop liability, and they are split.  If the issue of dram shop liability were to be revisited by the Court of Appeals, the result could be different from the one reached in Warr.