Change in Liquor Liability Laws Will Hurt Victims of Drunk Drivers

Attorney Trip Riesen wrote an article on joint and several liability that ran in the Post and Courier.

South Carolina ranks as one of the worst states for drunk driving coming in at 7th in the nation according to a recent Forbes article citing statistics from the National Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”).

“Every day, about 37 people in the United States die in drunk driving crashes – that’s
one person every 39 minutes.” NHTSA.

A recent Post and Courier article addressed the push by bars and insurers to limit their liability for overserving a patron by changing the law as it pertains to “joint and several liability.” The bars assert that they are having to close down due to the cost of liability insurance. If you believe this is truly an epidemic, then just walk down King Street in Charleston or in Five Points in Columbia on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night and count the number of bars packed to the gills.

As for increased insurance rates, bars are not alone, according to CNN, automobile insurance rates nationwide are the highest they have been in 47 years.
Instead of blaming the insurance companies for the rise in insurance premiums, the bars and their lobbyists are blaming innocent victims of drunk driving and their attorneys. Rather than accept some responsibility for our states DUI crisis, the bars are portraying themselves as victims simply because they have the “deep pockets.”

Consider the following: A guy bellies up to a bar for several hours and gets hammered. He then gets in his car and hits a child who later dies. Medical bills are over $100,000. The driver has only the minimum limits of $25,000 in auto insurance limits. The bar carries $1M in liability coverage. The deceased young girl’s father just happens to be a bar owner. In addition to going after the drunk driver, do you think he would not want to hold the bar accountable for knowingly overserving the driver, which is against the law in SC?

As the law currently stands, the bar almost always argues that the drunk driver should be held 100% responsible and that the victim is simply going after the bar because they have the deep pockets. If the jury agrees, then the bar pays nothing and, in the example above, the family would be limited to $25,000 for their deceased daughter. Conversely, if the bar is found to be even 1% at fault then the bar can be responsible for the entire verdict (joint and several liability).
So, as the law currently stands, from a public policy standpoint, our state has decided that we would rather the bar shoulder this burden if they are found at fault for knowingly overserving a drunk driver rather than an innocent victim.

Lobbyists for the bars and restaurants are currently pushing for legislation to get rid of the $1M minimum liability coverage they are required to carry and to get rid of joint and several liability. Are our existing laws good public policy considering our state’s sobering statistics or should we change the law, which will most definitely punish innocent victims of drunk driving and reward insurance companies and bars that overserve their patrons who get behind the wheel?

Rest assured, by changing the law to eliminate joint and several liability, there will be little to no incentive for bars to train their employees to recognize when someone should be cut off, as the more alcohol they serve, the more tips and revenue for the bar. Consequently, South Carolina will remain near the top of list nationally for drunk driving and more people innocent victims will die or end up severely injured.

Trip Riesen
Mount Pleasant, SC