INSIGHTS On Massachusetts Personal Injury Law

Welcome to the SUGARMAN blog. We'll be sharing our perspectives on the state of the law and current legal issues in Massachusetts personal injury law. Issues relating to medical malpractice, construction site injuries, premises liability, product liability, motor vehicle accidents, insurance, and more will all be reviewed here by our team of lawyers who have prosecuted some of the most complex cases in Massachusetts personal injury law.

Articles Posted in Liquor Server’s Liability

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During the early morning hours of Thanksgiving, a 29 year-old MBTA employee named Jephthe Chery was shot and killed outside of Who’s On First, a well-known bar located on Yawkey Way right across from Fenway Park. Mr. Chery, who was an innocent bystander, was one of four men shot that morning after a private party at the bar turned violent. Following the shootings, the Boston Police Department cited Who’s On First for creating “an unsafe environment”, although full details of what happened inside the bar that night have not been released. This incident follows a September 2015 attack in which two woman were shot while leaving the same bar. In addition to these two shootings, the Boston Police have alluded to an ongoing problem with violence and assaults at the bar.  As more details of the tragic circumstances leading to Mr. Chery’s death emerge, light hopefully will be shed on what employees of the bar knew regarding the events that led to the shootings.

This blog has already addressed the common sense rationale for holding taverns and bars liable for patrons who are over served, drive drunk and then injure or kill people. A bar or tavern such as Who’s On First, however, can also be held liable for assaults, crimes and other reasonably foreseeable violent acts committed by patrons outside the property, whether or not the acts are directly linked to the service of alcohol. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed this issue in Christopher v. Father’s Huddle Café, Inc., a case that was briefed and argued by SUGARMAN principles Marianne LeBlanc and Benjamin Zimmermann. The case resulted from the death of a young man who was killed during a fight that had started in a Boston tavern before moving out onto the street.  Employees of the bar were aware of escalating tensions between two groups of people in the bar and knew that one group followed the other group outside in order to initiate a fight, but the employees took no steps to intervene or call the police. Tragically, a young man was struck by a car while trying to flee from his assailants during the ensuing altercation. Attorney LeBlanc tried the case to conclusion and obtained a $28,000,000.00 jury verdict for the young man’s family, including a finding of gross negligence and an award of punitive damages against the bar owner. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the verdict that Attorney LeBlanc obtained against the bar. In doing so, it ruled that “the duty to protect patrons extends to all reasonably foreseeable harm including, in some circumstances, harm that occurs at a distance from the premises.” This principle has been applied to other cases involving violence and assaults that occur outside of taverns and bars.

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Some of the most regularly occurring and senseless tragedies in our society occur when alcohol and driving are combined. In the press, these tragedies often play out with calls for justice against the drunk drivers, and stories of repeat offenders who have been given lenient sentences. Literally every day, the criminal courts struggle with what to do with drunk drivers who have endangered others.

Handing down justice to drunk drivers who have caused injuries or death in the form of prison sentences, community service, and counseling is the only tool the criminal courts have to address what drunk driving victims have suffered. The civil courts, however, offer a different societal approach to the problem of drinking and driving, focusing on compensating victims, to the extent that is ever possible, for what they have lost at the hands of a drunk driver.

Unlike the criminal courts, the civil courts allow the victims to seek compensation not just from the drunk driver, but from bars or taverns that have negligently served alcohol to the drunk driver. Previous blogs have outlined the basic of liquor liability, or so-called “dram shop” liability, in Massachusetts.

But why should civil courts allow a victim to seek compensation from anyone other than the drunk driver? Aren’t they the real culprit? Why is it the bar’s fault? These are logical questions, and the answers find their roots in public policy, social norms, and the rule of law.

To look at why the law allows bars to share in the blame, and share in compensating victims, one must first review the law regulating the sale of liquor in general. Liquor licenses, and the sale of alcohol under those licenses, is strictly governed by statute, Massachusetts Laws Chapter 138. This statute, and the courts interpreting it, have stressed the public safety issues that arise with the sale of alcohol, and the need for strict regulation of the industry. In order to sell alcohol legally, you must (a) have a license, and (b) conduct the sale of alcohol in accordance with Chapter 138, and the regulations promulgated and enforced by the ABCC.
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As most people know, Massachusetts law prohibits businesses from serving alcohol to people under the age of 21.  However, some people may not be as familiar with the law which prohibits establishments from serving any person who is noticeably intoxicated.  As undergraduate and graduate students flood back into Massachusetts’ cities and towns this month, many of them will undoubtedly be heading to bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs to socialize before classes get underway.  So what liability rests with these businesses in serving, and over-serving, alcohol to the public?

Serving Alcohol to an Intoxicated Person

Massachusetts General Laws prohibit establishments holding a Massachusetts liquor license from serving alcohol to anyone who is intoxicated.  Mass. Gen. L. c. 138, s. 69.  http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXX/Chapter138

Liquor licensees have a duty to observe behaviors and to stop serving alcohol to someone who is noticeably intoxicated – for example, someone with red eyes, loud or slurry speech or rowdy behavior.  If a bar continues to serve alcohol to that person, it may face civil liability for death or injury to another person caused by the actions of the over-served customer.  Although usually occurring in the context of drunk driving accidents, this holds true in other scenarios as well, such as bar fights.  As a general principle, bars and restaurants cannot face civil liability if the intoxicated person hurts or kills himself.    

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Several times a year, it seems, we hear a story about a teenage drinking party leading to unfortunate consequences. Recently, a parent in Hingham, MA, was criminally charged for allowing such a party, apparently while the parent was at home. Thankfully, no-one was hurt.

http://www.wickedlocal.com/hingham/newsnow/x826294106/HINGHAM-POLICE-Parent-to-be-charged-under-Social-Host-Law.

But suppose it wasn’t just a case of the police breaking up a teen party? Suppose someone was hurt or killed when a drunk teenager drove home? Does social host law make the parent liable? One might think it obvious that a person who allows a teen drinking party in their home will be liable, but so far in Massachusetts the answer appears to be “maybe.”

In Massachusetts, a recent case re-affirmed the long-standing rule that a social host cannot be held liable for drinking related accidents caused by intoxicated guests unless the host actually serves or controls the liquor that makes the guest drunk. To read the Court’s opinion in Juliano v. Simpson in full, see http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1595146.html
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