The Maryland Court of Appeals heard an appeal Tuesday in a case that could hold Maryland restaurants liable for overserving patrons who then are involved in fatal drunken driving crashes.
The case follows a lawsuit involving Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, which served one patron 17 beers and three shots. The man later left the restaurant and drove drunk, killing a 10-year-old girl.
According to court documents, in 2008, Michael D. Eaton drove south on Interstate 270 at speeds reaching 88 and 98 mph when he crashed into another car, killing a passenger Jazimen Warr, 10. Eaton fled the scene on foot, according to court documents. When police searched his car, they found 17 open beer cans in the back seat of his car, the documents said.
Eaton pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a vehicle and failure to remain at the scene of an accident, and is serving eight years behind bars for the crime.
Jazimen’s grandparents and guardians, William and Angela Warr, sued Dogfish Head Alehouse for more than $3 million, attempting to hold the restaurant partly liable for the death, injuries and damages caused in the crash.
On Tuesday, the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard an appeal filed by the Warrs, who had sought damages from Dogfish Head Alehouse, claiming the restaurant was partly responsible in Jazimen’s death by overserving Eaton.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eric Johnson originally ruled in April 2011 that the case would go to trial.
However, in January 2012, he reversed the earlier ruling, dismissing the case. At the time, he said that the Maryland Court of Appeals should consider the case as an opportunity to change the law.
“The Court of Appeals, thus, is in a unique position where it can harmonize our jurisprudence with current societal conditions without being in conflict with the Maryland legislature,” he wrote at the time.
On Tuesday, lawyers argued the case before the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis.
“Only Maryland and four other states ... continue to bar innocent victims of drunk drivers from recovering damages from the dram shops that profit from plying patrons with alcohol and then blithely sending them onto the highways,” the Warrs’ lawyers argued in court documents. A dram shop is a legal term for an establishment that sells alcohol.
Under current Maryland law, restaurants that have served alcohol to drivers who are involved in fatal crashes cannot be held liable.
Andy Bederman, of the Silver Spring-based Greenberg & Bederman LLP, represents the Warrs. In his filing, Bederman argued that not recognizing a cause of action against dram shops was rooted in “outmoded notions.”
If the court of appeals rules in favor of the Warrs, the case would be remanded back to Montgomery County Circuit Court, where they would be able to seek damages from the restaurant.
Robert Hetherington, who represents Dogfish Alehouse Restaurant, did not return phone calls Tuesday.