How Much Should Iowa Bars Pay When Customers Drive Drunk?

 In News

bar-liability-drunk-driversIowa legislators, public safety advocates, publicans, and lawyers have finally thrashed out the answer ti a question: how much should a bar owner be liable for if a customer drinks, drives, and hurts someone? A new law places a limit on that amount.

Before now, the sky was the limit for bar liability. People who wanted to keep it this way, including drunk driving victims and some lawyers, said that there is no excuse for serving liquor to a person who is visibly intoxicated. In their view it is the responsibility of the establishment to watch customers and make sure that they are not so drunk as to become a danger to themselves or others.

On the other side was, among others, the owners of the bars themselves, who must pay very high insurance costs to protect themselves in the event a customer harms someone while drunk. Of course, even bars whose staff is extra careful about not over-serving are going to pay high premiums – the risk must be spread, so all of the establishments pay for the sins of a few.

With that in mind, the Iowa House passed  House File 2391. The bill caps the amount of damages that can be recovered when a bar was liable at $250,000, with some allowances for juries to make higher awards. The authors of the original bill sought to keep those damages to a maximum of $175,000.

The bill also changes the standard of bar liability. Before, the law could hold a bar liable if it served alcohol to one they know is intoxicated, or if they served it in an amount that the bar staff should have known would cause intoxication.

The new standard says that the person being served must be “visibly intoxicated.” Otherwise, the bar is off the hook. That standard is getting a lot of debate. Some note that a person can be over the.08 legal limit for intoxication and still not be “visibly intoxicated.” The law would make it the drinker’s responsibility to self-monitor as long as the inebriation wasn’t apparent.

The question is who has responsibility – the drinker or the bar – and how much responsibility do they have, in dollar terms? No one doubts that the drinker who drives is committing a crime, but his or her diminished judgement means that others bear some of the burden too. The Iowa House is about to define the limits of that burden.

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