Every year in Florida, there are somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 alcohol related accidents and in almost all of these cases the driver chose to drive with Blood Alcohol Content levels over the legal limit. But what about servers at drinking establishments who allowed the patron to drink and drive home, can they be held legally liable? In Florida, due to their lenient ‘dram shop’ law the answer is “probably not.” A “dram shop law” is a law that governs lawsuits over injuries caused by people who bought alcoholic drinks at bars or restaurants.
Florida statute states individuals or companies who sell or serve alcohol are not liable for injuries or damages caused by the drunk driver except in two scenarios: (1) the drunk driver was under the age of 21 and served alcohol, and (2) the drunk driver was served alcohol even though he/she is “habitually addicted” to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages.
Florida’s dram shop law has a lot of gray area and leaves room for loose interpretation of the law, because as long as the server at the bar or restaurant is unaware that the customer is “habitually addicted” to alcohol they remain clear of responsibility. The law was upheld in a 1995 case when a fraternal lodge was cleared of liability for the death of a man killed in a car crash by a driver who was routinely served 3-7 drinks when he visited the lodge and more recently in 2009.
In 2009, Andrew Hall was a victim of an accident that resulted in a severed left leg. The vehicle that hit him was driven by Joshua West, an employee of a Clearwater Beach bar. West had been drinking before the incident occurred and due to a 35-year-old law, Hall was unable to sue the bar for damages. The law that is currently in place says that in almost all cases party hosts and bar owners cannot be held responsible for drunk driving crashes.
More than 5 years later, Hall’s life still is far from what it used to be. West was required to serve five years in prison, but Hall says, “Five years for what he did to me? That’s a drop in the bucket.” Hall’s legal defeat against the bar that served West is currently on appeal.
Clearwater attorney Tom Carey lost his first wife when a drunk driver hit her and is trying to have the current law removed from the books. He says, “It completely immunizes the bars, bartenders, bar owners, anyone who serves alcohol is basically immune from prosecution on the civil side.”
Hall also thinks that the law is unfair and leaves the victim without a case if seeking financial damages from the restaurant or bar. He believes the bars should be held 100 percent accountable. On the website, gofundme, Hall wrote a letter and stated he’s had more than 30 surgeries so far and is due for more and his medical and living costs range in the millions. He further explained that in 2009 the drunk driver plowed into him at 90 mph while he was standing and waiting for a ride. He has already exhausted the reduced funds awarded by the state.
He hopes his story will cause the Florida law to change some day, so he can help others.