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Commentary: Changing SC Liquor Liability Laws Will Hurt Victims of Drunken Drivers

Riesen Durant > Blog  > Commentary: Changing SC Liquor Liability Laws Will Hurt Victims of Drunken Drivers

Commentary: Changing SC Liquor Liability Laws Will Hurt Victims of Drunken Drivers

Riesen and DuRant partner Trip Riesen recently penned an Op-ed for the Charleston Post and Courier.

Commentary: Changing SC Liquor Liability Laws Will Hurt Victims of Drunken Drivers

South Carolina ranks 7th worst in the nation for drunken driving, according to a recent Forbes article citing statistics from the National Traffic Safety Administration.

A recent Post and Courier article addressed the push by bars and insurers to limit their liability for overserving a patron by changing S.C. law as it pertains to joint and several liability. The bars assert that they are having to close down due to the cost of insurance. Take a walk along King Street on a Friday or Saturday night, and count the number of bars packed with lines waiting to get in.

Rather than blame the insurance companies for the rise in premiums, the bars and their deep-pocket lobbyists blame innocent victims of drunken driving and their attorneys. Instead of accepting responsibility for their own actions, these bars are portraying themselves as victims.

Consider the following: A guy bellies up to a bar for several hours and gets hammered. He then gets in his car and hits a sixth grader on her bicycle who later dies. Medical bills are more than $100,000. The drunken driver has only the minimum limit of $25,000 in auto insurance. The bar carries $1 million in liability coverage, as required by law. Do you think any parent would not want to hold both the drunken driver and the bar accountable for knowingly overserving the driver, which is against the law in South Carolina?

Bars almost always argue the drunken driver should be held 100% responsible and that the victim is simply going after the bar because it has the deep pockets. If the jury agrees, the bar pays nothing. However, if the bar is found to be even 1% at fault, then the bar can be responsible for the entire verdict (joint and several liability). Why? To incentivize the bar to follow the law by not letting customers get hammered and then get behind the wheel and to hold it accountable when it breaks the law.

So from a public policy standpoint, we have decided that if the jury determines that the bar knowingly overserved a drunken driver, we would rather the bar shoulder this burden rather than an innocent victim. Lobbyists for the bars and restaurants are currently pushing for legislation to get rid of the $1 million minimum liability coverage they are required to carry and to eliminate joint and several liability.

Are our existing laws good public policy considering our state’s sobering statistics, or should we change the law, which will undoubtedly punish innocent victims of drunken driving and reward insurance companies and bars that knowingly overserve their patrons who get behind the wheel?

If we change the law to eliminate joint and several liability, there will be little to no incentive for bars to follow the law by not overserving patrons with shot after shot, as the more shots the patron is served, the more tips and revenue for the bar. This is the question I will leave you with: How long will it take South Carolina to rank No. 1 for drunken driving with bars having even less accountability if this legislation is enacted?

Trip Riesen is a second-generation Charleston lawyer and former managing assistant solicitor for the 9th Circuit.

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