Are bar owners to blame? A man and a woman go into a bar in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s 11:42 p.m. on Friday. The music’s loud. The crowd is even louder. The acoustics don’t help as the noise level is by design to create a desired atmosphere. As a patron, you might believe there isn’t anywhere else you’d want to be and by leaving, there’s that FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) effect. This man and woman buy into the whole concept. They stand, impatiently waiting behind two people seated at the bar.

The bartender, Frank, eyes them and nods. Though he cannot hear their requests, his longstanding experience in the industry makes him invaluable as he can read their lips. Within two minutes, he concocts their cocktails and moves on to the next thirsty customer. Here’s where it all turns south.

Moral Responsibility Vs. Criminal Prevention

What Frank didn’t know will hurt him, the bar owners, and the five teenagers that happened to be in a car on the road just .75 miles away from where his patrons are enjoying themselves right now.  This couple had stumbled into the bar, using the crowd as a buffer to stay steady on their feet and get to the bar counter without falling. But Frank was focused on serving customers, to make them happy and keep them happy, which makes the bar owners money which, makes them happy as well. With the heightened noise level inside, Frank wouldn’t have heard their slurred speech anyway. If he did, would the evening have ended any differently? Does a bartender have the right to limit or stop a patron’s alcohol consumption?

The couple went on to drink until the bar closed. They meandered down the two blocks of sidewalk to get into their car. They drove, weaving the roadway for about three minutes until they hit a car head on. That vehicle had a group of teenagers inside who were merely waiting for the traffic light on Goldwater Avenue to turn green.

As a bartender, bar host, manager or establishment owner, where does the hammer of liability strike when customers drink beyond the legal limit, causing harm to themselves or someone else?

What is Dram Shop Law

The story about the couple and the teenagers noted above is fiction. The possibility of a story occurring just like it and the issues surrounding it are very real. If you live in Scottsdale or plan on visiting and happen to go to our local eateries and entertainment venues, alcohol consumption is a choice that falls on the consumer – no matter what. However, there is a little-known law that came about in the 1980s created to protect victims of DUI (driving while under the influence). Known as the dram shop law, it sheds light on the recklessness and negligence of barkeepers, owners and any staff responsible for serving alcohol.

While the dram shop law exists in many of the States, details on the law and how it is interpreted may differ.

Dram Shop Law in Arizona

According to the Arizona Revised Statutes, dram shop law is based on the bartender’s (owners/management) knowledge of the customer at the time the alcohol was served at their establishment.

  • Liquor was sold to a person blatantly impaired
  • Liquor was consumed by a person obviously impaired
  • Liquor consumption was cause of injury or damage

If the customer had no obvious physical signs of impairment when a request for alcohol took place, and the customer did not say that operating a vehicle after drinking was part of the plan, then no negligence was involved.

Further, even if the customer was served alcohol and impairment was obvious, the State of Arizona would have to prove that the injury or damage was caused as a direct result of the alcohol being served, which is not that easy to do. But there’s a bigger question at hand.

Obvious Drunk Surpasses Legal Guidelines

The legal limit of alcohol, based on Arizona law, converts to a blood alcohol level of “0.08”. This is not subject to a person’s weight, height or metabolism. In addition, many people are too impaired to drive long before their blood alcohol level reaches the legal limit. And others, reach the legal limit – long before there are visible signs of impairment. So how would a bartender, even the most experienced, be able to tell if someone’s had too much?

Knowing Your Limit Has Little to Do with the Law

Just as each person handles alcohol differently, each person has a specific limit before impairment is reached, irrespective of Arizona law. If you have a poor sense of judgement or inability to control your intake, plan social outings with trusted friends who can act on your behalf and tell you when enough is enough.

Sobriety and Restaurant Profits Don’t Mix

Any venue that holds a liquor license is required to serve alcohol in a responsible manner. However, this does not include making individual assessments on customers and their ability to control their intake. In the city of Scottsdale, where much of the revenue is dependent on seasonal visitors, college students, young professionals and the draw from special events, finding the next big party is not just an expectation but the rule. As such, bar owners and restauranteurs commit to that end, ensuring the happiness and safety of their clientele while in their establishment.

I asked a former bar owner from Scottsdale, who lives with alcoholism, how he handled regular customers who obviously overconsumed during his shift. (He had chosen to remain anonymous).

“Hey… people go out to have a good time… or forget their problems. I’m not going to stand in their way. If they start mouthing off or swinging fists, that’s a different story. Yeah… sometimes, I’d order them a ride. But the minute they exit the door, they’re on their own,” he said without reservation.

What a bartender won’t do is step up and act like your AA sponsor. Part of a customer’s unspoken tenet is to drink responsibly. For those with untreated alcoholism, this is an impossibility as excessive behavior is their norm.

Abstinence Is the Best Letter of Ethical Law

Legal restraints don’t always align with moral code. While dram shop law was long overdue, according to some, it still stands short on consistency. At what point does “entitlement to drink” stop and personal accountability begin? Should an individual’s rights supersede the health and safety of others?

Perhaps actor Marlon Brando said it best: “If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.”

If You Have Trouble Saying When, Now Is the Time to Get Help

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 602-346-9142.

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