The Maryland Appellate Court recently decided a Maryland dram shop case after the tragic death of a man in a single-car crash that had allegedly been overserved at a Charles County bar. The plaintiffs had the good fortune of drawing as the author of the opinion the Maryland Supreme Court judge the wrote the dissenting opinion in Maryland’s last big dram shop case.
Plaintiffs still lost.
Facts of Willett v. Ape Hangers
In the small town of Bel Alton in Charles County, Maryland, there is a motorcycle bar called Ape Hanger’s Bar & Grill. According to the plaintiffs ‘ wrongful death lawsuits, the bar, owned by Ape Hangers, LLC, had garnered a reputation as a rowdy bike bar that had a propensity to overserve alcohol to its patrons. The complaint also alleges the employees would get drunk on the job, and management would turn a blind eye to all these questionable practices. Is this true? I have no idea.
One night, a man drank too much at Ape Hangers. He had arrived already visibly intoxicated. He slurred his speech, struggled to maintain balance, and had clearly lost control over his reflexes and judgment. Yet, instead of cutting him off, Ape Hangers continued to pour him drinks, the lawsuit alleges, serving him even back-to-back shots of hard liquor in just under an hour. The bartender allegedly joined in, taking multiple shots with the man.
Tragically, he decided to head home. He crashed his car into a tree and died.
His wife and daughters filed a wrongful death claim against Ape Hangers. The basis? The family believed the bar was negligent in serving Wayne excessive alcohol and allowing him to drive in his state.
Motion to Dismiss
Not surprisingly, Ape Hangers filed a motion to dismiss.
Ape Hangers’ lawyers (Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A) asserted that the Willetts’ Amended Complaint should be dismissed on two primary grounds:
- Despite the case being styled as a premises liability claim, the lawsuit is rooted in dram shop liability – a theory not recognized by Maryland law.
- The man was contributorily negligent.
The plaintiffs argued their claim hinged on the man’s aggravated condition. They contended that their Amended Complaint aptly pled common law negligence and premises liability. They argued their claim was distinct from dram shop liability. They highlighted Ape Hangers’ alleged negligence in supervising and controlling the premises and its employees. Emphasizing that the man was a business invitee, they argued that Ape Hangers was bound to ensure the highest safety standards. They criticized the establishment’s alleged lack of employee training in responsible alcohol service and purported negligence in not assisting Mr. Willett before he drove away. (Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, these are all dram shop arguments.)
As for the contributory negligence point, the plaintiff argued last clear chance doctrine.
Court’s Decision in Willett v. Ape Hangers
In negligence cases involving premises liability, the court underscored that the connection of proximate causation is essential, among other evidence requirements. In particular, a valid complaint should include four main points: 1) the defendant had a duty to shield the plaintiff from harm, 2) the defendant did not fulfill that duty, 3) this failure directly resulted in the plaintiff’s loss or harm, and 4) the plaintiff indeed suffered harm or loss.
The big issue in the case that has the most significant impact on Maryland law is whether there is a duty. Judge Harrell’s opinion avoids this question by assuming there is a duty and disposing of the case on proximate cause for the sake of argument. So the court found that even assuming Ape Hangers had a responsibility to shield the man from hazards due to their staff’s overserving and consuming alcohol alongside him, and the management’s indifference to these activities – which is a hotly contested issue, of course – the plaintiffs still lose.
Although a business owner’s primary responsibility is to their patrons, the court underscored this duty has limits. A responsibility to protect only exists if the patron is unlikely to recognize or understand the risk on their own or won’t guard themselves against it.
Legal vs. Actual Cause
Judge Harrell observed that proximate causation involves two main ideas: actual causation and legal causation. The first, actual causation, delves into whether the defendant’s actions truly led to harm. If harm would not have happened without the defendant’s negligence, then actual causation exists. The second, legal causation, explores who should bear the responsibility for the outcomes of such actions. It’s essentially a mechanism to limit liability once actual causation is proven. While generally this is determined by the fact-finder, in cases where there’s no room for differing opinions, it becomes a matter of law.
Consistently, under Maryland’s common law, the court found, determined that the act of overserving alcohol doesn’t legally constitute the cause of injuries to the person who’s been served, or to any third party that they might subsequently harm. This conclusion remains consistent irrespective of whether injuries occur within or outside the confines of a tavern, liquor store, or at a private host’s setting.
I think the lines between proximate cause and duty are a little blurry than Judge Harrell’s opinion suggests. Maryland’s view of proximate cause of serving dunks is interwoven with its antiquated take on duty. I think if the allegations in the complaint are true, Ape Hangers had a duty to not serve an already visibly intoxicated man seven shots, and I think this conduct would be a proximate cause of the man’s death.
But there are two problems. First, what I think is not Maryland law. Second, bigger picture, this is not a case where the court should impose liability. But if that man had killed someone on the way home, there should absolutely be a claim for damages.