The Summer DUI Spike and Alcohol Liability Risks for Bars and Restaurants

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Traffic fatalities are up. Fatalities in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes are up as well, and these numbers tend to climb even higher during the summer months. For restaurants, bars, and other businesses that serve alcohol, it’s time to put a cork in alcohol liability risks.

The Rise in Drunk Driving Fatalities

U.S. traffic fatalities have surged. The NHTSA says that traffic deaths reached 49,915 in 2021, a 10.5% increase compared to 2020. Traffic fatalities also increased in 2020 compared to 2019, despite decreases in miles driven and total crash rates. Many people have blamed the increase on an uptick in reckless driving, and the NHTSA says that 45% of crashes involved alcohol impairment or other risky behaviors.

Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have increased as well. The NHTSA says that there were 11,654 fatalities linked to alcohol-impaired driving in 2020, up from 10,196 in 2019, and the fatality rate per mile driven increased from 0.31 to 0.40.

Many of these deaths occurred during the summer. The NHTSA says that 10.5% occurred in August, 10% occurred in July, and 10% occurred in June. For comparison, only 5.7% occurred in April.

Restaurant and Bar Liability

Businesses serving alcohol may be held liable for overserving customers or serving minors. These laws, often called dram shop laws, vary by state.

According to Total Food Service, both the establishment and the bartender can be held liable for serving a minor who is later injured. Businesses may also be hit with third-party dram shop lawsuits, involving customers who later kill or injure others. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that 30 states have laws that allow businesses to be held liable for serving alcohol to someone who later causes injury or death.

Drunk driving incidents are a major risk, but injuries and deaths may occur in other ways, for example, as a result of alcohol-fueled assaults or alcohol poisoning.

Lawsuits, Fines, and Licensing

Businesses accused of unsafe alcohol policies may face lawsuits as well as fines and liquor license suspensions. Here are a few examples:

  • According to Yahoo News, a bar in Ohio faced either a fine or license suspension after an investigation found that a customer was served 15 drinks in less than 3.5 hours before being involved in a fatal crash. The bar had the option of either a $5,000 fine or a 25-day suspension and chose the latter.
  • A man in Texas filed a lawsuit against a Mexican restaurant, alleging that he was overserved alcohol and that this caused him to be injured in an altercation with another customer. According to Midland Reporter-Telegram, the man was awarded $5.5 million for claims including premises liability, negligence, and damages arising from foreseeable criminal conduct.
  • A Texas jury awarded more than $300 billion to the family of a woman and teen killed in a crash involving a drunk driver, according to KSAT. The lawsuit was filed against a bar accused of serving dangerous amounts of alcohol to a man who later caused the fatal crash. Although the award is astronomical, the bar has already closed, and payment is not expected.
  • A driver and several Portland-area bars have been hit with a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit involving a drunk driving crash. According to the Portland Tribune, the civil suit alleges that the driver and friends, some of whom were underage, were served despite being visibly intoxicated. One of the bar’s co-owners says the underaged individuals used fake IDs.

Protecting Your Customers and Limiting Your Liability

As summer heats up, it’s especially important to control alcohol-related liabilities.

  • Train your staff and provide frequent reminders. Your workers should be trained on when to check for identification, when to stop serving and what to do if problems occur. Research published in the National Library of Medicine has found that server intervention programs can be successful in preventing drunk driving.
  • Look out for fake IDs and know the age limit. Bar & Restaurant warns that bars can be held liable for serving minors with IDs that are obviously fake or not theirs. The article also warns that many bars fail sting operations designed to catch establishments serving minors because they miscalculate the person’s age.
  • Prevent incidents. In addition to implementing policies to avoid overserving customers, you can also help prevent drunk driving by offering designated driver perks or by working with other companies and organizations to provide sober rides.

Good risk management can help you take control of your alcohol-related liability. Securing the right insurance is also essential. Learn more about our insurance options for the hospitality and restaurant industries.