South Carolina Jury: Yes, Bar Was Liable For Serving Emma’s Killer After Hours

bar-liable-for-death-of-Emma-Longstreet If you’re a driver in South Carolina, you probably know about Emma’s Law, which requires anyone in the state who is convicted of drunk driving to install an ignition interlock. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

The law was a the result of a long fight by the family of Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old girl who was killed by a drunk driver on the first day of 2012.

One more battle remained, and now that has been won as well: a Richland County jury ruled that the bartender who served an intoxicated man is liable for Emma Longstreet’s death. The family was awarded $3.6 million in damages.

At the heart of the battle was what is sometimes called a dram shop law – a law holding a drinking establishment liable if they don’t refuse alcohol to already -intoxicated patrons. South Carolina does not have a dram shop law, but there are precedents for imposing liability for serving a drunk driver. The driver of the jeep that hit Emma’s car, Billy Patrick Hutto, had already been drinking at two bars before arriving at the Loose Cockaboose, where he had three drinks and then drove away.

Holding a bar liable for the misdeeds of its patrons has always been controversial. Some people think that only the driver should be held responsible for the crime.

The problem with giving the sole “personal responsibility” to the driver are threefold:

  • It ignores the fact that a bartender made the terrible decision of making a drunk person drunker
  • It assumes that a drunk person is a qualified executor of his or her responsibility not to drive, even with a brain that is severely compromised by alcohol
  • It gives a bartender less incentive to stop a drunk driver

So the jury made the right decision, one that will make bartenders nervous all over North Carolina. Yes, they’ll be nervous, but they’ll also be checking more carefully to make sure their patrons aren’t falling-down-drunk. And the ones who haven’t bothered taking the car keys of those patrons might just start.

It won’t bring back Emma, but it might make tragedies like that occur less often.