A lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in Maryland seeks to hold a bar liable for injuries sustained in a 2008 boating accident. Early in the morning on June 5, 2008 a ski boat carrying 10 people crashed into an abutment on the Route 90 bridge in Ocean City, Maryland. Conditions at the time were foggy, and the collision caused all of the boat’s occupants to fall into the water. Everyone was rescued, although several sustained injuries. Only one passenger required hospitalization, while 6 passengers were treated at the hospital and released, and 3 were treated at the scene.
Scott Howard Shepard, who was operating the boat at the time of the accident, was eventually charged with operating a vessel while impaired, negligent operation and reckless operation. He received a 30-day jail sentence. Shepard and the boat’s passengers had been at Seacrets, a resort nightclub. The club’s water taxi had ferried them to their boat prior to the accident.
In March 2011, passenger Danielle Vollmer, who had been treated and released from the hospital, filed suit in the United States District Court in Baltimore against Shepard and Seacrets. The claim against Shepard appears to be an ordinary negligence claim, while the claim against Seacrets incorporates maritime law claims and a claim for dram shop act liability. Her complaint states that “Seacrets knew or should have known that ferrying and encouraging a severely intoxicated patron such as Shepard to his boat, and then later ferrying the plaintiff to board and depart on the same boat with Shepard, created a condition of danger to the plaintiff and the public.” She is seeking $1 million in damages from each of the defendants.
Vollmer’s case against Seacrets will be interesting to watch. Maryland is one of 12 U.S. states that does not have a statute or caselaw providing for dram shop liability. “Dram shop” liability holds a bar that sells alcohol, or a host that serves alcohol, to a visibly intoxicated person strictly liable for damages subsequently caused by that person. For example, a bar that sells liquor to an individual who would appear intoxicated to any reasonable person would be liable to a person injured by the intoxicated individual, to the extent that the injuries were a result of the person’s drunken state. This most often involves DUI accidents. 38 states have laws allowing this sort of liability, but not Maryland.
That may change in the near future, though. In June 2011, Montgomery County, Maryland judge Eric M. Johnson stated in an order that it is time for Maryland’s law to change. Judge Johnson was presiding over a lawsuit against a bar by the family of a child killed by a drunk driver who had been served beer at the bar prior to the accident. In rejecting the bar’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Johnson wrote:
The facts of this case undoubtedly should serve as the impetus to adjusting Maryland jurisprudence on the topic of dram shop liability…This court is of the opinion that while the Maryland legislature has not enacted dram shop legislation, it has not expressly prohibited it … A bar owner who continuously serves drinks to intoxicated individuals and makes no attempt to ensure that the individual has alternative means home should expect that the intoxicated patron can get into an accident.
Judge Johnson’s order does not have any force of law beyond that particular lawsuit, but it may herald a change in how bars are treated when a bar patron causes an accident.