Who’s Responsible When a Customer Kills?

As Super Bowl Sunday draws near, I’m reminded of two recent cases that put Maryland Court Rulings at odds over business liability. In both cases, the businesses’ patrons killed innocent people. The courts’ rulings on who should be held responsible in each case, however, are far different.

In 2008, three people were killed after a football argument in a restaurant turned violent during the Super Bowl. Although none of the employees of the restaurant, Uno Chicago Grill in Largo, Maryland, were directly involved in the altercation that led to the murders, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (CSA) revived a lower court’s $2.3 million jury verdict and ruled that the restaurant was responsible for failing to intervene. It determined that when Uno’s employees saw a football argument escalating into something more violent, they acted negligently by doing nothing to try to stop it. I applaud the Court for recognizing a restaurant owner’s duty to intervene when in a position to do so, but this ruling doesn’t square with the ruling in another recent Maryland case.

The same year of the Uno incident, Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg served a man in excess of 20 alcoholic drinks in a six hour period. The intoxicated man then left the bar and drove on to the freeway, killing a 10-year-old girl and severely injuring her family members. In that case, the Maryland Court of Appeals (Maryland’s highest court) ruled that the bar was immune from liability. By serving him in excess of a “normal” limit, Dogfish directly contributed to the driver’s impairment. Yet, the Court alleviated Dogfish of responsibility.

How is it possible that Maryland’s highest court can absolve an establishment of responsibility if it actually CAUSES the dangerous situation, yet another Maryland appellate court permit liability when a restaurateur does not intervene in a volatile situation? I don’t believe these two decisions can be squared. In the same way that Uno was expected to intervene to stop a potential violent outcome, so should other establishments be expected to intervene to stop drunk driving.

This Uno decision will likely be appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals and we hope that the Court affirms the decision made in the case. Sometimes courts must grapple with inconsistencies from case to case, and here the Court of Appeals can rectify this particular inconsistency by following suit in the Uno case and reconsidering its ruling in Dogfish.

Who do you think should have been held liable in these cases? Share your thoughts!

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