Saturday, September 17, 2011

Now it’s up to this legislature to decide between bar owners and innocent victims.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has laid it in the lap of the legislature. The Court recently decided a case involving a drunk driver who killed an innocent husband and wife. Because of a law enacted by the legislature nearly two decades ago, the bar won, the innocent victims lost. Now it’s up to this legislature to decide once again between bar owners and innocent victims.

The facts of the case are troubling. According to the Court, “Prior to the accident, (the drunk driver) became intoxicated as a result of consuming alcoholic beverages at the Stockman’s Bar in Basin, Wyoming, and the Smokehouse Saloon in Greybull, Wyoming. (The drunk driver’s) conduct at both establishments showed that he was highly intoxicated, and such conduct was obvious and noticeable to anyone in his presence. Nevertheless, the employees at both establishments continued to serve alcoholic beverages to (the intoxicated patron).”

You might think your elected representatives would want to end drunk driving and protect innocent victims. You’d be sadly mistaken. Of course some do but the majority of the legislature wants to make certain liquor dealers are protected from lawsuits even when they act as egregiously as those in this case who allegedly served too much for too long.

In 1983, the Court decided a similar case allowing victims of drunk drivers to sue bars when they continue serving an already drunk patron. The liquor dealers marched immediately into the State capitol and used their connections and considerable political influence to enact the “Pontius Pilate” law allowing those responsible to wash their hands of any liability when innocent people are victims of drunk drivers.

With straight faces they argued the responsibility should fall only on the shoulders of the intoxicated driver making sure they could continue to serve even “highly intoxicated” customers while avoiding responsibility for any tragedy that would inevitably follow. Victims of drunk drivers don’t have as good lobbyists as do the purveyors of alcohol. Still you’d hope elected legislators would make their case about where the “personal responsibility” ought to lie.

According to medical standards, “A person is said to suffer from alcohol intoxication when the quantity of alcohol the person consumes exceeds the individual's tolerance for alcohol and produces behavioral or physical abnormalities. In other words, the person's mental and physical abilities are impaired. The person can't function and certainly should not be operating a motor vehicle.” The legal definition is more succinct. Intoxication is a “state in which a person's normal capacity to act or reason is inhibited by alcohol or drugs. Generally, an intoxicated person is incapable of acting as an ordinary prudent and cautious person would act under similar conditions.”
As a customer becomes obviously intoxicated, “personal responsibility” necessarily shifts to the sober person who continues to take the drunk person’s money in exchange for even more alcohol. By definition, a person who is intoxicated is incapable of making good decisions including decisions about whether or not to drive. At the point the customer’s bad choice to drink in excess crosses the line to intoxication, he becomes a serious threat to public safety.
Lawmakers now must balance the political clout of bar owners with the need to protect innocent lives. This time we hope they’ll listen less to liquor dealers and take this threat more seriously. No one can feign surprise when a customer whose drunkenness is, as the Wyoming Supreme Court noted, “obvious and noticeable to anyone in his presence” leaves the bar and drives down the road where they kill innocent victims. Those who make a profit from serving alcohol in excess should not be immune from paying the tragic costs.
Nonetheless, the Wyoming Supreme Court and victims alike are helpless in the face of the legislature’s willingness to protect bar owners. “The point is that the legislature, a policy-making branch of government, chose not to place that duty upon the alcohol provider.” But voters are not helpless. Voters should demand an explanation from those they elect. Ask them who they represent, liquor dealers or their innocent victims?

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