Dram Shop Trial Starts Today: Did Bar Cause Death of Dallas Cowboy?

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Drunk Customers, Car Crashes, And The Dram Shop Act

Background: Former Dallas Cowboy Josh Brent was driving his teammate and best friend Jerry Brown, Jr. home almost exactly six years ago.  They and other Cowboys had been drinking for hours at a private night club in North Dallas. Brent hit the curb and flipped over his Mercedes in Irving at a speed of 110 miles an hour just a few minutes after leaving the bar. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter but the sentence was probated and he only served six months in jail. The deceased’s family filed a Dram Shop lawsuit against the bar in 2013. The case finally goes to trial today in Dallas.

Case: The family has claimed that Beamers Private Club was at fault because it served Brent an excessive amount of alcohol. His blood alcohol level was .18 — more than two times the legal limit. The bar denied liability and filed a cross-claim against Brent, claiming that he was the sole cause of the crash. The jury has to decide if the bar violated the Dram Shop Act by continuing to serve Brent when he was obviously intoxicated.

Questions answered in this post:

  1. What is a Dram Shop lawsuit?
  2. Can a bar or restaurant be held liable for a car or truck collision when a driver is intoxicated?
  3. What laws and court cases control the outcome of the case?
  4. Will these affect the trial of the former Dallas Cowboy?

Texas Law Regulating Liability of Bars and Restaurants

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code prohibits the sale of alcohol to someone who is already intoxicated.  The Dram Shop Act which allows a cause of action against these establishments became law in 1987. The state legislature wanted to make sure that the victims of car crashes and other torts were compensated by alcohol-providing establishments if they sold an excessive amount of liquor to their customers. The Act takes its name from the English phrase for a “dram,” what we call a shot.

The requirements that must be proven by the injured party to win his lawsuit are the following:

  • The business served a person who was obviously intoxicated;
  • He must have been a danger to himself or other people; and
  • His intoxication was the direct cause of an incident that caused an injury

Texas Court Cases Have Made It Harder To Hold Liquor Providers Responsible

In 1987, a landmark case imposed a duty on bars, restaurants, and stores to not serve persons that “it knows or should know are intoxicated.” In El Chico v. Poole, the Texas Supreme Court also made our roads safer by reducing the causation requirement for the plaintiff in these cases.

The new Dram Shop Act took effect the next week and the state legislature made these cases harder to prove. Lawmakers increased the injured person’s burden of proof and required specific evidence of “obvious intoxication.” Further, the plaintiff had to prove that the other driver was a “clear danger” to him and others. The injured customer usually did not have that information and it was difficult to obtain. Worse, the new act tied the concept of proximate causation to the intoxication of the drunk driver, not to the conduct of the alcohol seller.

Other Supreme Court sided with the financially powerful liquor industry.

For example, the Duenez family filed a dram shop lawsuit against the owners of a convenience store after one of its clerks sold a large quantity of beer to a man named Ruiz, who was already extremely drunk. He proceeded to crash into this family and seriously injure five people, with two suffering catastrophic brain injuries that required 24-hour a day medical care. A jury in South Texas awarded the family $35 million and held the store owner (not the drunk driver) 100% responsible for the damages. In 2004, the Supreme Court decided in a split 5-4 case that under Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code, the jury had to allocate fault between the seller and the intoxicated driver.  Fortunately for the plaintiffs, the decision allowed them to recover from the store both the percentage of fault that the jury had given to the store and to the drunk. The store appealed. By that point, three justices who had ruled for the plaintiffs had left the court. On rehearing of the exact same issues, the new panel ruled a few years later in favor of the alcohol seller.

In most collisions caused by an intoxicated person, proving that the reason the car accident happened was more likely because a bar, restaurant or 7-11 allowed him to get drunk (or drunker) can obviously be difficult. The jury often blames the intoxicated driver. But usually the drunk driver does not have a large insurance policy, if he has one at all, to pay for the horrendous damages he may have caused, especially in the typical high-speed crash. The liquor provider often knows that its customer is intoxicated, is leaving by car, and has a duty to stop a crash from happening but can get off scot-free.

How This Affects You

Texas is the #1 state in the country for DWI’s. This hits us hard in North Texas, with a whopping 3,783 intoxicated driver collisions in Dallas and Tarrant Counties last year.  If you add Collin and Denton Counties, we had almost 5,000 DWI wrecks in the Metroplex last year — that’s almost 14 a day! Over 1,000 people unfortunately died as a result.

Here is more information about this serious issue from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

We Can Help You

Berenson Injury Law handles many driving while intoxicated crash cases and is closely monitoring this latest high-profile trial. Mr. Berenson pursues reckless drivers, especially ones caused by drunk drivers. He supports Mothers Against Drunk Driving and is a member of its advisory board of directors in North Texas.

Our firm follows important lawsuits like this Dallas Cowboys one closely and was shocked by the lenient sentence given to Brent:

Does Dram Shop Act Apply to Josh Brent, Ex-Cowboy?

Josh Brent Given Probated Sentence for DWI. WTH?

The consequences of Brent drinking what experts testified to was 17 alcoholic beverages need to be compensated to the family of the victim. A young man in his dream career on his dream team left behind a baby daughter because his best friend decided to get behind the wheel while drunk.

Restaurants, night clubs, and convenience stores must screen their customers to make sure that drivers are not killed or injured. Lawsuits like the one starting today will send the message that these incredibly lucrative businesses must do their jobs and protect the driving public — even if they make a little less money pouring drinks.

 

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