Crash victims can sue taverns

The survivor of a wrong-way wreck on Ga. 400 said the bar where she and friends were drinking is partly to blame for the deaths of two people in the crash. She said security personnel should have done more to prevent her friend from driving.

The statements by Beyonica Watts raise important questions as to whether drinking establishments can be held accountable in alcohol-related crashes.

In short, they can. Georgia law says that the victims of these crashes can sue if bar staff serve a noticeably intoxicated person who they know will soon be driving. The statute, called the dram shop law, has led to a number of lawsuits against bars and restaurants in metro Atlanta.

“If they keep serving somebody they know is driving, they can be held liable,” said Alfred Evans, an Atlanta personal injury and insurance defense attorney. He added, however, “They can be very hard cases to prove.”

These cases raise a multitude of questions, Evans said: Was the person drunk when they came into the bar or restaurant? How much alcohol were they served? Was their intoxication obvious? Did the server know they were about to drive?

Legal experts emphasized that the facts of this Ga. 400 crash, which occurred at about 4:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, are not fully known. But they said the bar’s actions in this instance could well protect it from legal action. The crash was among three fatal head-on crashes in recent weeks on metro Atlanta highways.

Atlanta police are still investigating the collision, but Watts acknowledged — during an interview with Channel 2 Action News — that she and her friend, Frampere Ingle, were drunk in the bar and driving the wrong way on Ga. 400. Watts said club security took Ingle’s car keys, but handed them over to an acquaintance of theirs, who drove them away from the club. Watts told Channel 2 that the woman drove a short way before she handed the keys over to Ingle and left in a different car with other friends.

When Watts and Ingle got on Ga. 400, with Ingle behind the wheel, they headed south in the northbound lanes and crashed into Eric Hanks near the Lenox Road exit, killing him, police said. Ingle, 24, also died in the crash.

Evans, who is not involved in the case, said bar security apparently took action trying to stop the women from driving off while intoxicated.

“Let’s just say that provides further insulation for the bar,” the attorney said. “That would make it a tough case.”

He noted, however, that the bar could be legally vulnerable if it continued to serve the women drinks, knowing they were drunk and going to drive.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has decided not to name the southwest Atlanta club identified by Watts until police finish their investigation. The bar owner did not return calls.

Bar owners and legal experts emphasized that it’s difficult for a bar to know the level of impairment of each patron. Beyond that is the desire of the establishment to sell alcohol.

“There’s a conflict of interest here,” said Robert Friedmann, a Georgia State University criminal justice professor. “What they want to do is sell drinks.”

Bar and restaurant owners say they don’t want their customers endangering themselves, and they take actions to prevent people from driving away drunk. Many purchase optional “liquor liability” insurance that can cost $15,000 or more a year.

“These are the kind of cases that can drive a business out of business,” said Pino Venetico, head of the Independent Restaurant and Bar Association of Georgia.

At Johnny’s Hideaway in Atlanta, staff are trained to spot various levels of intoxication among patrons, said owner Chris Dauria. The nightclub has contracts with several services that will drive people, and in some cases their cars, home, with the costs divided between the bar and patron. One such company places a scooter in the trunk of the impaired person’s vehicle, and, once at that person’s home, the company driver heads back on the scooter.

Dauria said he sees a handful of the dram shop cases every year in metro Atlanta.

The state dram shop law — named after the old world moniker for bars or taverns — can only be used in civil lawsuits, not criminal cases. Hosts of parties can be held accountable as well, though not the airline industry, Evans said.

A Cobb County jury returned a $600,000 judgment against a nightclub in 1998, stemming from an auto accident in which a drunk driver had just left the club after consuming numerous beers. The crash killed a 78-year-old woman in the car that was struck.

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