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Montgomery, Alabama

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Tom Methvin
Tom Methvin
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A jury verdict in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident

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Alabama has a law called the Dram Shop Act that makes it a civil wrong for a bar to sell liquor to a person who is visibly intoxicated. While a good number of other states have similar statutes, some don’t. Mississippi happens to fall in the latter category. But, a Jones County circuit court jury has ordered Applebee’s, a restaurant that served alcohol to a man who ran over two people, to pay the majority of a $3.5 million judgment jury verdict. Even in the absence of a specific statute, Mississippi has allowed such actions based on established case law.

Separate lawsuits were filed by two individuals naming the drunk driver and Quality Restaurant Concepts, the operator of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar in Laurel, Mississippi, as defendants. A motorcycle ridden by the plaintiffs stalled about a half mile from the restaurant. As the couple got off the bike, a car driven by the drunk driver slammed into them, crushing their legs and causing other injuries. The two plaintiffs claimed that Applebee’s served the man liquor even though he appeared to be intoxicated. After a four-day trial, the jury awarded a total of $3.5 million to the plaintiffs. The jury decided that Applebee’s is responsible for 90% of the damages and the drunk driver 10%. The drunk driver, who was never charged criminally in the accident, did not answer the civil court complaint filed against him and did not appear at the trial.

There haven’t been many cases of this sort in Mississippi. In this regard, the Mississippi chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that these two lawsuits are among the few successful civil cases within the last decade in Mississippi against a bar for serving alcohol to a customer. Under Mississippi case law, the person served has to be visibly intoxicated before the law comes into play. Jurors sent a message in these two cases, which were combined for trial, that businesses serving alcohol must follow the law. Interestingly, it came out at the trial of this case that the business had the number of a taxi service taped to the telephone at the bar and an internal policy that spelled out who not to serve. Unfortunately, the management failed to follow this policy.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Dram Shop Laws, the “dram shop” name comes from 18th century England when thousands of so-called “gin shops” sold homemade gin by the dram (about a spoonful). When the king of England decided to tax the sale of gin, these dram shops quickly went underground in an effort to avoid paying taxes. Today’s legal system considers any establishment selling liquor illegally as a modern day equivalent of the dram shops of the 1700s. Besides bars and liquor stores, the dram shop laws also can apply in some states to restaurants, social clubs, and even private events where liquor is sold. You should look to the law in your state to see exactly what responsibilities are set out for serving alcohol to persons who have been drinking. For example, in many states there is very limited liability where the alcohol is served in a social setting such as the home.