Published on:

D.C. Dram Shop Liability Expands

Last month, a D.C. jury found that the District Lounge & Grille, a bar (now closed) formerly located in the Adams Morgan section of the District, was liable to the Estate of Julia Bachleitner under the D.C. Dram Shop Statute. The parties had previously agreed that, if the bar was found liable, the damages would be $1 million.

Last month, a D.C. jury found that the District Lounge & Grille, a bar (now closed) formerly located in the Adams Morgan section of the District, was liable to the Estate of Julia Bachleitner under the D.C. Dram Shop Statute. The parties had previously agreed that, if the bar was found liable, the damages would be $1 million.

The Accident
The case is as tragic as they come. Julia Bachleitner was a 24-year old, soon to be engaged graduate student at the Johns Hopkins’ SAIS School in D.C. Originally from Austria, she had studied and traveled around the globe and had just returned to D.C. in September 2010 for her final year of graduate school. On September 8, she and her friend, Melissa Basque, met up with their boyfriends, all of whom were SAIS students, to catch up after being apart all summer. While walking from the campus to a nearby restaurant, the group crossed Florida Avenue where it connected with 18th Street.

While standing on an island in the middle of that intersection waiting to cross (the interchange has subsequently been reconfigured), a car driven by Chamica Adams came down 18th Street, crossed over the island, and struck Ms. Bachleitner and Ms. Basque. Ms. Bachleitner died days later from her injuries; Ms. Basque, while hurt badly, recovered. Ms. Adams subsequently pled to involuntary manslaughter and is currently serving a 40-month prison sentence at Danbury Correctional Institute in Connecticut.

Dram Shop Liability
The D.C. Dram Shop (an old English term for a bar) statute permits third-parties to recover from persons or entities that serve alcohol in the District, a notion that runs counter to the common law of England and the United States which found that it was the alcohol, not the person serving alcohol, responsible for whatever might ensue. Beginning in the 1920s, states across America turned that notion on its head by enacting so-called Dram Shop statutes to specifically impose the type of liability at issue here.

The D.C. statute imposes liability (1) on a bar that serves an intoxicated or visibly intoxicated patron or (2) where an intoxicated or visibly intoxicated patron consumes alcohol on the premises. The “consumption” prong of the statute appears to be unique in America – everywhere else, liability is premised solely on service to a visibly intoxicated patron. By extending that liability to consumption, the D.C. Legislature has essentially imposed a strict liability scheme on the D.C. hospitality scene, making it their responsibility to ensure that patrons do not drink on their premises once the patron becomes intoxicated or visibly intoxicated.

The Lawsuit
Ms. Bachleitner’s family, along with Ms. Basque and the two boyfriends, sued both Ms. Adams and the bar at which she had been drinking prior to the accident – the District Lounge. According to video from the District Lounge, Ms. Adams entered that establishment at approximately 6:10 that evening to attend a happy hour, all-you–can-drink event. Between 6:14 and 6:35, Ms. Adams ordered at least three alcoholic drinks from two different bartenders. Plaintiffs and Ms. Adams claimed that she obtained two more drinks – Green Zombies – at 6:40, an assertion the Bar disputed. Ms. Adams left the Bar at 8:14 and the accident occurred 24 minutes later, approximately a half-mile from the Bar. Ms. Adams claims to have blacked out once she entered her car and could not fill-in all the missing time between when she left and when the accident occurred. An open bottle of Grand Marnier was found in her car.

Leading up to trial, the four plaintiffs settled their claims with Ms. Adams; in addition, Ms. Basque and the boyfriends dropped their claims against the District Lounge. Proceeding alone, the Bachleitner Estate sought to recover against the Bar on three distinct theories: (1) general negligence; (2) negligence per se based on the D.C. Dram Shop Statute; and (3) negligent hiring. Ultimately, only the issue of negligence per se was submitted to the jury.

The Result
The jury found that the District Lounge did not serve Ms. Adams while she was intoxicated or visibly intoxicated and that it did not serve her two drinks at a time in violation of a separate D.C. stature prohibiting the service of “back-up” and “to go” drinks. It did, however, find that Ms. Adams consumed alcohol on the premises while intoxicated or visibly intoxicated and on that basis, found the District Lounge violated the D.C. Dram Shop and caused the accident.

The Aftermath
The Bachleitner matter appears to be the first time that a D.C. jury has imposed liability on a bar based solely on the “consumption” prong of the Dram Shop statute. The verdict could open the proverbial floodgates of Dram Shop litigation in D.C. as it is clear that plaintiffs need only show that a person was drinking on premises while intoxicated or visibly intoxicated to hold the premises’ owner liable, even if the owner did not supply the alcohol being consumed and/or have any contact with the drinker.

STSW lawyers Steve Kelly and Bill Sinclair have litigated Dram Shop and Victim’s Rights cases in the District of Columbia and Maryland. If you would like to discuss this article or a potential case you may have, please call (410) 385-2225 or (800) 385-2243 or email them at skelly@mdattorney.com or bsinclair@mdattorney.com.