Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dram Shop Laws

As a Facebook comment to my recent post “”, Charlie asked my opinion on Dram Shop Laws.  Considering my conversation this weekend with Debi at Walmart (where you now have to appear to be OVER 40 to not show ID to purchase alcohol), this seems a particularly fitting post.

Before we get into my views, let’s first examine what it is.

Dram shop or dramshop is a legal term in the United States referring to a bar, tavern or the like where alcoholic beverages are sold. Traditionally, it referred to a shop where spirits were sold by the dram, a small unit of liquid.

Dram shop liability refers to the body of law governing the liability of taverns, liquor stores and other commercial establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. Generally, dram shop laws establish the liability of establishments arising out of the sale of alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons or minors who subsequently cause death or injury to third-parties (those not having a relationship to the bar) as a result of alcohol-related car crashes and other accidents.

The laws are intended to protect the general public from the hazards of serving alcohol to minors and intoxicated patrons. Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have advocated for the enforcement and enactment of dram shop laws across the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The earliest dram shop laws date from the 19th century temperance movement.

As you can see, these laws are a shift of responsibility from the person committing the crime to the venue in which they commit it.

While I think underage drinking in America is a problem, why is the punishment not dealt on the kids who are caught?  Better yet, why have a drinking age at all? 

As many of my friends know, I live quite some time overseas (and so did they) and still travel there frequently.  In some countries, there is no defined drinking age….and if there is, it is 16 or 18, the age of legal consent.  Yet here in the US, we place that age at 21 (3 years after a person can vote, and 4 years after they can join the Military).  So much for individual rights.  If you teach children that there isn’t a stigma of evil attached to something, and moderation as they grow up, when they reach adulthood….you dont have as many issues with the “Forbidden” subject matter.  This can been seen especially in continental Europe where drinking is part of their culture, although of late, binge drinking has become a bit of a trend in the UK where they are now closing pubs early.

Anyway, this a post about Dram Laws, so let me refocus.

In my opinion, the punishment for underage drinking and DUI (where injury or property damage occur) should be heavier, yet applied only to the criminal, not the supplier/vendor.  Why?  Because they were the ones who attempted to purchase (breaking the law if underage and defrauding the supplier) or decided to drive (in the event of a DUI).

While it is illegal to sell to minors, the punishment is never carried out on the kids (or the kids parents) who are breaking the law (other than a slap on the wrist)….yet always on the establishment that was probably provided a false ID (another crime) in the first place.  It’s the same with underage smoking.  It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy cigarettes, yet go to any high school and see how many kids are out smoking.  Usually there is a cop in the vicinity, but there are no tickets written….yet if a store sells to the kid, they are fined.  How is that right?

Similarly, while DUI fines (across the board) are high, and there is a huge downside on insurance and possible jail time, the real problem occurs when there is injury, death or property damage.  This is when the lawsuits really come out and people go after anyone involved…..thus the Dram Shop Laws were born.

By shifting the Onus to the Vendor/Provider, you now open things up to larger lawsuits and payouts for loss of life, injury or damage.  When suing “Joe Citizen”, at a certain point he won’t be able to pay anymore…yet stores and bars have larger insurance policies that can be raped for more money, to which the lawyers (in 2006, more than 30% of the Congress and Senate were made up of Lawyers) can make substantial gain when they take their cut.

As a shop owner or bartender, if it is my job to police the sale of controlled substances, where does my responsibility end?  What about prescription drugs?  What if someone takes an Ambien and falls asleep at the wheel… I also at fault (even though there is a warning on the bottle just like Beer/Wine/Alcohol)?  Under the current rules, I would say yes….which is why places like Walmart (under advice of their legal team) restrict sales of some over the counter medicines, household items (paint and glue) and even cigarette lighters to those at least over 18, if not 21 in some cases.  Because they are afraid of being sued.

In the end, it is ultimately the individuals responsibility to own up to their actions.  It should not the Bartender or the Shop Owner’s responsibility to enforce laws (Store Policy YES, Laws NO).  How are they to interpret if someone is “Drunk”?  Are there tell tale signs?  Yes, but everyone has different threshholds and reactions… there is to much variable.  Further, how do they know if you are driving?  They don’t.  You could be a passenger, walking or taking a cab. 

What everyone should do is if they have any suspicions of someone breaking any law, as good citizens, they could call the police and let the them sort it out.

To many laws……not enough time.

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