Holiday season is officially upon us, which means the return of end of the year happy hours, social club mixers, late family dinners, and frankly just more alcohol. For our collective safety, let’s all be mindful, drink responsibly, and stay off the roads as much as possible. For lawyers, restaurant and bar owners, and those with knowledge of the dram shop laws in Florida, we know this is especially true in our state.
When we think about a bar’s responsibility to the general public, we often assume that a bar cannot overserve their patrons, or else face consequences. That is, that the bar would be liable if they overserved a patron, who then drove home from the bar and injured someone. We’d think that the laws seek to holding bars responsible in this way, in order to incentivize bar owners to train their employees not to overserve patrons. Disturbingly, in Florida, this is not the case!
Instead, Florida’s Dram Shop Act (Fla. Stat. § 768.125) details that a bar is not liable for damage or injury caused by one of their intoxicated patrons, unless the intoxicated person is a minor or the bar “knowingly serves a person habitually addicted to … alcohol.” For bar owners, this often means skating liability if they overserve an adult, if they did not previously know the patron. Often, in fact, in the face of litigation regarding harm done by an overserved patron, bar owners and their employees may bury their hands in the sand, plead ignorance, and deny knowing the overserved patron in order to avoid being held liable for the carnage caused by the bar’s drunk and reckless patron.
Because of the difficulty in satisfying the requirements of Florida’s Dram Shop Act, many attorneys shy away from representing those that are hurt by intoxicated persons that were overserved at a bar or restaurant. Are dram shop cases difficult? Yes. To that point, too few bars are held responsible for reckless service practices, they continue overserving with impunity, and there are more drunk drivers on the road. This evermore true during the holidays, and so sadly, the best cautionary measure is to stay home as often as you can. But with that said, the bars can be held responsible and forced to answer for their actions and inactions.
For instance, in a dram shop action against a well-known Fort Lauderdale bar, Round-Up Country, The Haggard Law Firm sued the bar for overserving a patron, who then left the bar and crashed head-on into a young father. Faced with allegations of knowingly serving a habitual drunk, the bar’s primary defense was that the bartenders did not know the drunk patron, and certainly did not know he was habitually addicted to alcohol. While The Haggard Law Firm argued that the patron was a regular at the bar, and that Round Up knew he was an alcoholic, the bar and their insurance carriers long rejected the premise. Survived by his wife and infant daughter, however, the bar eventually opted to tender its One Million Dollar policy limit days before mediation.
In the end, critical to securing the tender of the bar’s available policy limits was The Haggard Law Firm’s deposition of the bar’s general manager, who all but admitted that his staff was trained to mix drinks, but inadequately trained regarding how to identify whether a patron was a habitual drunkard. There is no doubt that the case would not have settled, if not for deliberate and careful deposition tactics. In fact, The Haggard Law Firm has a long history of obtaining the total insurance policy limits from bars in dram shop actions, despite their initial refusals to acknowledge liability. Bars can be held responsible, and families given some measure of justice, as long as skilled attorneys are at the helm in litigation.
While success in court brings a measure of solace to those injured, these cases also help to send a message to other bar owners. If bar owners recognize a risk to their wallet, they’ll start training their staff, because the fact is, most bars and restaurants fail to adequately train their staff how to identify whether a patron is addicted to alcohol. As a result, more people may be overserved and drive away from bars. That it has become exceedingly difficult to hire staff, as seemingly everyone looking for a job wants to work from home, the danger linked to poorly trained staff has only increased. Today, desperate for staff – and more staff with the holidays approaching – bar and restaurant owners are more often placing inexperienced bartenders behind the bottle.
Above all else, please be even more careful over these next few months. That means not only being careful on the road, but being aware when at bars and restaurants. Take note of overserved patrons, but also to bartenders paying no mind, and more focused on tips than telling someone ‘no’ to another drink. And if someone is injured, they are not powerless against Florida’s laws and these brazen bars. Skilled attorneys can obtain justice and show these bars that their reckless behavior will not be tolerated.
Author: Adam Finkel, Esq.
Adam Finkel is an associate attorney with The Haggard Law Firm with extensive experience working with
victims of crime as a former state prosecutor. Prior to joining The Haggard Law Firm, Adam was an associate
attorney at Mase, Tinelli, Mebane & Briggs practicing in the areas of admiralty and maritime, personal injury,
and general civil litigation matters. Before entering into private practice, Adam spent almost six years
working for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office. Mr. Finkel was a member of the Gang Unit and
was asked to serve in the county’s specialized Gun Violence Unit, as the lead attorney prosecuting hundreds
of violent criminals. In order to investigate crime and prepare for trial, Mr. Finkel worked closely with local
law enforcement, as well as Federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Department of Homeland Security. Though obtaining
many guilty verdicts and prevailing at trial against some of the county’s most heinous gang members, Finkel
also worked within the community to help troubled youths enroll in college.