Is a bar owner responsible if a patron has too many drinks and subsequently gets into a car accident that injures an innocent third party? In some cases, the answer is “yes.” Like many states, Georgia has a dram shop law that applies to anyone who “sells, furnishes, or sells alcoholic beverages.”
An accident victim can sue the alcohol seller if three conditions are met. First, the seller must serve alcohol to a patron “who is in a state of noticeable intoxication.” Second, the seller must know that said patron “will soon be driving a motor vehicle.” Finally, this service of alcohol is the “proximate cause” of the victim’s injuries.
Barnes v. Smith
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a dram shop law case brought against an individual who owns a bar through a corporate entity. In many cases a person who is an officer or shareholder of a corporation is not individually responsible for any civil civil claims against the business. But in Georgia, a corporate officer may be liable for taking part in a civil tort committed by the corporation as an entity.
In this case, a patron entered the defendant’s bar one night in November 2012. He was served two alcoholic beverages initially, and then upon returning to the bar later that same evening, he was served at least two more drinks. The night supervisor at the bar, who was also the server, noticed the patron was visibly intoxicated. Although she attempted to take his keys, she ultimately did not prevent him from leaving the bar in his car; nor did she call the police because the patron was a friend of hers.
Shortly after leaving the bar, the patron struck the plaintiff’s vehicle, causing it to overturn on the interstate. She was seriously injured. The plaintiff then sued both the corporation that owned the bar and its sole shareholder individually under the dram shop law.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the individual defendant. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. The courts disagreed with the plaintiff’s contention that the “corporate veil” did not protect the individual owner from liability.
The owner was not present at the bar on the evening of the accident. So the plaintiff’s claim against him rested on his alleged failure to properly train his employees on how to prevent drunk patrons from driving. Under Georgia law, the Court of Appeals noted, negligent training of employees is not to establish a plaintiff’s “direct participation in a tort leading to a plaintiff’s injuries.”
Similarly, the Court of Appeals also said there was no basis for a negligent supervision claim. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence that the owner “knew or should have known that the bartender required additional supervision.” In other words, the plaintiff could not simply assume there was negligent supervision and sue the owner on that belief alone.
It should be noted the Court of Appeals only addressed the claims against the individual owner of the bar. The plaintiff’s claims against the corporation were not affected.