For decades, South Carolina motorists have been hearing about the dangers of drunk driving - and rightly so. Driving drunk is one of the top causes of fatal car accidents in our state and nationwide. In fact, South Carolina has historically ranked ahead of the national average in terms of the number of fatal accidents caused by drunk drivers.
Why are drunk drivers such a danger on our roads? In part, it's because drunk drivers have slow reaction times, impaired judgment and reduced concentration and coordination. Moreover, drunk drivers are often on the road at night, when driving safely requires increased concentration and visual acuity.
When drunk drivers cause accidents, victims do have legal options. As with any car accident, they can take legal action against the drunk driver - but these cases can be more challenging than you might expect. Some evidence that the other driver was intoxicated, such as the police report, may be inadmissible in civil court. And drunk drivers often don't have insurance, or don't have high enough policy limits to cover the full cost of the injuries they cause.
However, in many cases the drunk driver is not the only responsible party. The victim can also take legal action against the establishment that served alcohol to the at-fault driver.
"Dram shop" cases revolve around the bar's responsibility to manage intoxication
Legal cases against bars and restaurants that served alcohol to an intoxicated person who then caused an injury are known as "dram shop" cases - an old legal term that originates in times when establishments would sell alcohol by the dram, a small unit of liquid. In essence, an establishment that serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, or to an underage person, can be held liable for the injuries that person causes.
As The State reported in early September, these types of cases are on the rise in South Carolina. The issue is that the need to monitor and limit customers' alcohol intake runs counter to the bar's profit motive to sell as many drinks as possible. Moreover, many bar employees are young and inexperienced, and they neither know how to recognize that customers are showing signs of intoxication nor understand how important it is to avoid overserving alcohol.
South Carolina lawmakers are considering proposals that would mandate additional training for bar employees to slow or halt the serving of alcohol to intoxicated customers, according to the State article. While some such training programs already exist, they are voluntary and not used widely.
These legal cases are complex and require an experienced attorney's help
Even though the law is clear on a bar's liability for injuries caused by an intoxicated person, proving that liability in a dram shop case can be challenging. Some of the evidence that may be needed to prove that a bar was negligent includes:
- Surveillance video proving that the customer was showing signs of intoxication.
- Credit or debit card receipts showing the time each individual drink was purchased and served.
- Witnesses who may testify that the customer was intoxicated and continued to be served alcohol.
While taking legal action against a bar or restaurant is rarely easy, it's often the best way to get an injured person the compensation he or she needs. Businesses have significantly more resources available to pay claims than drunk drivers, many of whom only have limited liability coverage on their personal auto insurance policies. Moreover, these cases send a strong message to South Carolina establishments that serve liquor: They need to do so responsibly or face liability for the injuries and deaths they cause.