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Underage and Overserved

Underage drinking is a serious issue for bars and restaurants. A licensed business that serves alcohol to a person under age 21, even unintentionally, may be fined or have its liquor license suspended or revoked. In addition, in the majority of states, underage patrons who are served can sue the establishment for any injuries they sustain related to their intoxication.

After an enjoyable, casual dinner, a Florida couple, Susan (19) and Steve (22), headed to the restaurant bar where they continued to drink until about midnight. They left the bar intoxicated with Steve behind the wheel going 80 mph. He veered off the road with the car’s right passenger’s side striking a tree. As a result of the accident, Susan sustained punctured lungs, causing pulmonary arrest and respiratory complications; multiple, traumatic brain injuries; multiple rib fractures; chest trauma; and a liver laceration and cardiac contusions. Steve served one year in jail for driving under the influence.

Susan and her mother sued the restaurant’s operator and its owner for negligence, vicarious liability and breach of duty. The lawsuit alleged that the restaurant’s bartender willfully and unlawfully served alcoholic beverages to Susan with the knowledge that she was under age 21.

The defense counsel also contended that the restaurant operator and owner failed to exercise due care in their hiring and selection of employees, failed to properly train, supervise, and monitor their employees and failed to ensure they did not sell or furnish alcohol to persons under 21.

As a result of her injuries, Susan suffered severe neurological impairment from the accident. She lost her ability to speak and does not remember her life before the accident. Susan spent the next seven years at home with her mother until moving into an assisted living facility for daily care.

Multi-Million Judgment Awarded

The jury awarded Susan $9,635,000 in economic damages, which includes $650,000 for past loss of earning capacity; $2 million for future loss of earning capacity; $900,000 for past medical expenses; and $6,085,000 in future medical expenses. She was also awarded $50 million in non-economic damages, which includes past and future pain and suffering, disability, physical impairment, disfigurement, mental anguish, inconvenience, aggravation of a disease or physical defect and loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life. Susan’s mother was awarded economic damages of $365,000 for lost income.

This incident highlights the critical need for a restaurant operation to understand its legal obligation with regard to alcohol-related accidents and injuries caused by intoxicated patrons as well as to comprehend the moral and economic value of implementing strong business practices, including employee training and management. Having a solid liquor liability risk management program in place along with the right insurance coverage will help mitigate and protect against alcohol-related exposures and potential losses.

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