Skip To Content

Dram Shop Liability Likely Coming To Maryland

August 5, 2020

Serving alcohol to minors is illegal in every state in the union. Unlike Maryland, most other states impose liability on establishments which serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated patrons who subsequently cause injury to a third party.  Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of dram shop liability.  “Dram shop” laws are named after establishments in 18th Century England that sold gin by the spoonful, called a “dram.”  Dram shop liability laws govern the liability of bars, restaurants, liquor stores and other commercial establishments where alcohol is sold and/or served.  Generally, these laws establish liability arising out of the sale of alcohol to minors or to visibly intoxicated persons who subsequently cause injury or death to a third party, usually involving a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.  

On March 12, 2013, the Court of Appeals of Maryland heard arguments in the case of Warr v. JMGM Group, LLC, brought by the grandparents of a 10-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver who was over-served alcohol by a bar. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg negligently sold alcohol to Michael Eaton when he was already drunk, then allowed him to drive off the premises.  Eaton, who was not a party to the lawsuit, allegedly sped at 100 mph down I-270 in Rockville crashing into the back of a Jeep Cherokee being driven by Plaintiff William Warr, killing his 10-year-old granddaughter.  Based on the questioning of several of the Court of Appeals judges at oral argument, it appeared obvious that the court is considering implementation of some type of Dram Shop liability in Maryland for the first time.

This is not the first occasion on which this issue has been before our appellate courts.  In 1981, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard argument on the issue of whether “Maryland should now recognize a right of action in tort against a licensed vendor of intoxicating beverages for injuries negligently caused by an intoxicated patron to an innocent third party”. Concluding that no such liability existed, the Court of Appeals noted that: “Maryland adopted the early common law rule that an innocent third party did not have a cause of action against a vendor of alcoholic beverages for injuries suffered as a result of the intoxication of the vendor’s patron.  Felder v. Butler

In 2010, the Court of Special Appeals heard an appeal involving liquor liability in the case of Troxel v. Iguana Cantina.  In this case, the Plaintiff brought a suit against the tavern for injuries the Plaintiff sustained as a result of a physical altercation with an intoxicated, underage patron.  After the trial court granted summary judgment for the establishment based on the premise that Maryland does not recognize dram shop liability, the Court of Special Appeals reversed, but on grounds applicable to premises liability, rather than dram shop liability.  The Court found that the Plaintiff sufficiently alleged that Iguana Cantina allowed a dangerous condition to exist on its premises and, therefore, completely avoided having to address the dram shop issue.

Despite declining to adopt dram shop liability when the Troxel v. Iguana Cantina case was issued in 2010, the analysis of the Court of Special Appeals behind the purpose of implementing such law was telling.  Specifically, the court noted: “The stated purpose behind many dram shop acts is to provide innocent parties with a cause of action against those persons who are in the best position to prevent the tortfeasor’s intoxication, namely, the providers of the alcohol.  By placing the burden of economic loss on the vendors of alcohol, the dram shop act provides an extremely effective incentive for those vendors to do everything in their power to avoid making illegal sales, and at the same time it provides a remedy to members of the public who are injured as a result of illegal liquor sales.”

It should be noted that the Maryland General Assembly has specifically considered and rejected bills in recent years which would have implemented a dram shop law in this state.  If the Maryland Court of Appeals was to create dram shop liability, despite the Maryland General Assembly having rejected multiple attempts, one would be hard-pressed to deny that the courts had usurped the role of the Legislature.