• Court of Appeals Again Rejects Dram Shop Liability
  • August 17, 2013 | Author: Eric M. Leppo
  • Law Firm: Semmes, Bowen & Semmes A Professional Corporation - Baltimore Office
  • William J. Warr, Jr., et al. v. JMGM Group, LLC, d/b/a Dogfish Head Alehouse, No.: 57, Sept. Term 2012 (Maryland Court of Special, July 25, 2013)

    In this recently issued, and highly anticipated opinion, the Maryland Court of Appeals, affirmed again that there is no dram shop liability in the State of Maryland, and Judge Battaglia’s majority opinion stated that any such change in the law rests with the Legislature.

    The facts of the case were largely not in dispute. On or about August 21, 2008, Michael Eaton consumed alcoholic beverages as a customer at Dogfish Head Alehouse, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He began drinking at approximately 5:00 pm and continued drinking until after 10:00 pm. After leaving the bar for approximately an hour, he returned for several more drinks including a shot of tequila. At that point, an employee of Dogfish Head informed him that they would not serve him any more alcohol, and offered to call a cab for Mr. Eaton. Mr. Eaton declined the cab, and instead left the bar in his vehicle. Thereafter, he was involved in an automobile accident on I-270. The accident involved a vehicle in which the Warr family was riding, causing personal injuries and the death of their young daughter.

    Judge Battaglia noted that the Warrs’ asserted five causes of action against Dogfish Head all sounding in negligence, and each asserting in some way liability against Dogfish Head for serving the alcoholic beverages consumed by Mr. Eaton. Specifically, the Plaintiffs’ theory of liability was that “Dogfish Head had a duty to refuse to provide alcoholic beverages to an individual who was either visibly intoxicated or who was considered a ‘habitual drunkard.’” Warr, at *3.

    Dogfish Head filed a Motion to Dismiss the matter arguing that Maryland does not recognize dram shop liability. The Circuit Court of Maryland for Montgomery County denied the motion allowing for discovery, but granted Dogfish Head’s Motion for Summary Judgment on essentially the same grounds, noting that if Maryland precedent were to be overruled it was for the Court of Appeals to take such action. The Warrs’ appealed the matter to the Court of Special Appeals, but their petition of certiorari was granted before any Court of Special Appeals action was taken.

    In a lengthy opinion, dwarfed by the extensive dissent, the majority reaffirmed the Court’s prior decisions declining to adopt dram shop liability through judicial action: State v. Hatfield, 197 Md. 249, 78 A.2d 754 (1951) and Felder v. Butler, 292 Md. 174, 438 A.2d 494 (1981).

    The Court based its decision largely on Maryland’s well-established law regarding the legal duty to protect another from the actions of a third party. The Court noted that in order for a duty to be owed to Plaintiff for the actions of a third party, the question 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.” Warr, at 12, citing Remsburg v. Montgomery, 376 Md. 568, 583, 831 A.2d 18, 26-27 (2003). The Court noted that a tavern owner does not control the customer’s conduct, nor his decision as to whether he will drive, walk, or take a taxi.

    The Court further rejected the argument that service of alcohol resulted in an increased risk of injury to other drivers on the roadway. The Court pointed out that it rejected just such an argument last year in Barclay v. Briscoe, 427 Md. 270, 47 A.3d 560 (2012), when the Plaintiff argued a driver’s employer was liable for an accident caused on his way home after working a twenty-two hour shift, holding explicitly that there was no duty.

    In closing, the Court quoted the Supreme Court of Delaware in Shea v. Matassa, 918 A.2d 1090, 1094 (Del. 2007), stating that the Legislature “is in a far better position than this Court to gather the empirical data and to make the fact finding necessary to determine what the public policy should be...”