For years, that tragedy was compounded by Massachusetts law, which let bars and restaurants operate without liquor liability insurance. Like other businesses, Massachusetts restaurants and bars have traditionally carried general commercial liability insurance covering on-site problems, including slip and falls and other injuries. But this insurance offers no assistance to drunk driving accident victims.
In late May, Massachusetts lawmakers corrected this and passed a law requiring restaurant and bar owners to carry liquor liability insurance. Establishments must carry a minimum of $250,000 per person/$500,000 per accident coverage. In other words, policies must provide a minimum $250,000 for bodily injury or death of one person and a total of $500,000 per incident involving bodily injury or death.
Innocent victims of drunk driving accidents still face the traditional hurdles in proving their cases against bars. One hurdle is strong juror bias. Juries do not hesitate to hold the drunk driver responsible. But juries are often reluctant to blame a drinking establishment for over-serving a patron, even though the law is perfectly clear that a bar has a legal duty to not serve someone who is intoxicated.
Restaurants and bars seek to avoid liability for over-serving patrons, and they typically claim they did not recognize that the patron was intoxicated. The recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case of Rivera v. Club Caravan, Inc., 77 Mass. App. Ct. 17 (2010), reviewed the legal standards for “dram shop cases.” Generally the plaintiff must prove the patron showed outward signs of intoxication by the time he or she was served her last drink. However, circumstantial proof can also be sufficient. If the patron had consumed excessive quantities of alcohol, a jury can draw an inference that he would have been visibly intoxicated. So, where a patron is served fourteen drinks in two hours, as in the Rivera case, or was served six or more white Russians, as in another Massachusetts case, the circustantial evidence is strong enough.
Personal injury attorney Ronald Gluck called the new law “a step forward” for the safety of Massachusetts residents. “Restaurants and bars will want to have strong policies in place–and to follow them–not just to avoid liability but also to avoid large increases in their insurance premiums. The new liquor insurance law should help reduce drunk driving accidents in Massachusetts.”