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Oct 19, 2001

MADD SEEKS STATE LAW TO HOLD ESTABLISHMENTS LIABLE IF THEY SERVE ALCOHOL TO DRUNKEN PATRONS

Would laws holding bar owners and employees liable for drunken-driving injuries have saved a pregnant woman and three other people killed last week on Interstate 264?

The answer will never be known, but the Southside Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving announced Tuesday that it will renew efforts to persuade state lawmakers to pass such legislation.

Laws that allow compensation for victims would help prevent drunken driving, the group argues.

“The bars and restaurants here have no incentive to stop someone from drinking because there is no civil liability,” said chapter President Michael Goodove. “ `We’re not the cause of this,’ is what they are going to say. But they’re the cause because they are enabling that person to drink and drive.”

In the early 1990s, the group pushed for third-party civil liability, called dram shop legislation, that would hold restaurant and bar owners and employees responsible if they knowingly serve alcohol to intoxicated people or minors. The restaurant and beverage industry’s powerful lobby blocked its efforts, said Goodove, who has been with MADD for a decade.

Several restaurant owners and managers said Tuesday that legislation holding third parties liable would not help curb the problem. And the burden of assigning liability in those cases would be impossible.

“If someone comes to my restaurant and has one drink and leaves, then goes to split a six-pack at someone’s house . . . how am I responsible for that, and how can I prove that you drank somewhere else?” said Christopher Savvides, president of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association and owner of the Black Angus Restaurant in Virginia Beach.

The District of Columbia and 43 states have legislation or court rulings that impose liability on owners and employees, according to MADD’s national office.

“Of course, the initial responsibility is with the drinker,” Goodove said. “That person makes a conscious decision to get drunk and get into a motor vehicle. Secondary responsibility lies with the bar or restaurant.”

Witnesses have told police that Enrique Lopez, 21, was drinking at Peabody’s Nightclub in Virginia Beach before Friday’s fatal crash. Lopez drove a car the wrong way on I-264. He plowed head-on into an oncoming car, killing himself and three women, including a woman who was headed to a hospital to have her first child.

Police are awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine Lopez’s blood-alcohol content.

The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is investigating whether Peabody’s violated liquor laws. The agency could take administrative action against the club by suspending or revoking the club’s license or levying a fine.

Savvides said dram shop legislation would allow victims or their families to sue people who had no part in serving alcohol to a customer, such as building owners or other employees.

“Anywhere there’s third-party liability, it opens the door for lawsuits – and where do you draw the line?”

Such a law could put some restaurants and bars out of business, he said.

“Insurance rates would double, and liability would double overnight,” Savvides said. “Even if you were absolved, just to defend yourself, the costs would be staggering.”

Savvides and others said that responsible restaurant and bar owners already do everything they can to make sure customers don’t get into a car while intoxicated.

At Waterside’s popular Bar Norfolk, employees go through several training classes each year to learn how to spot intoxicated people and what to do about it, said managing partner Kevin Marcuse. The bar offers free non-alcoholic beverages to designated drivers and participates in a program offering free taxi rides to patrons who don’t want to drive home.

He and Savvides said that most local restaurant and bar owners support the efforts and progress made by MADD. And they agree that adults must act responsibly if they decide to drink.

“The business has to take the responsibility of being a caretaker of their patrons,” Mar-cuse said. “But that responsibility has to be shared with the customer who knows it’s wrong to drink and drive, and who should know their limits.”