Maryland’s Highest Court Continues to Nix Tavern Owners’ Liability for Off-premises Acts by Intoxicated Patrons.

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For the time being, Maryland remains among the states that refuse to impose liability on tavern owners for injuries caused by intoxicated patrons after they leave the premises.   

In Warr, et. al. v. JMGM Group, LLC, 57-12, Sept. Term 2012, decided July 25, 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals rendered a 4-3 decision refusing to hold the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Montgomery County, Maryland liable for a death and serious bodily injury caused by a drunken driver who was served a large quantity of alcohol before leaving the establishment.  After refusing to serve the patron any further alcohol and offering to call a cab for him, which was refused, the patron got behind the wheel of his car and was involved in the injury sustaining and fatal car crash.  The 64 page opinion of the Court was divided equally between the majority of judges on the Court of Appeals and three dissenters.

The Court of Appeals has twice before considered “dram shop” (a “dram” is an antiquated form of measure applied to liquor served in taverns many years ago) liability in 1951 and again in 1981.  The Circuit Court judge who presided over the Montgomery County trial felt bound by those decisions in which the Court of Appeals had refused to impose liability and which indicated the subject was best left to the legislature.

The appellate court indicated in a footnote to the Warr opinion that it was not addressing the issue of a tavern owner’s liability for injury caused by an intoxicated patron “on premises”.  In the instant case, the Court found that no “special relationship” (e.g. a “duty” existed on the part of the tavern owner to protect a particular class of persons rather than the general public as a whole) existed so as to warrant imposition of liability against JMGM Group and, therefore, its Motion for Summary Judgment was properly granted.  The opinion notes with approval a Delaware decision in which the issue of imposing liability on tavern owners for off-premises injuries by intoxicated patrons is best left to the legislature.

The dissent indicated that “duty” extended beyond the narrow view of it set forth in the majority’s opinion.  The dissenting judges also felt that the Maryland legislature’s failure to enact legislation in light of the Court’s earlier opinions refusing to impose liability under similar circumstances was not an indication of the legislature’s approval or disapproval of those decisions.  In light of that, the dissenters felt the Court was free to act to evaluate the judicial decisions and statutes of a growing number of states which impose such liability upon tavern owners with an eye toward the imposition of liability.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, Maryland remains among the list of states that refuse to impose liability on tavern owners for injuries caused by intoxicated patrons after they leave the premises.