Privatizing liquor sales stalls in Pennsylvania: The effect on liability

In recent years, there has been a push in Pennsylvania to privatize the state-run liquor stores and require that owners with liquor licenses purchase liability insurance. This requirement is essential so that those injured by drunk drivers, who obtained alcohol while visibly intoxicated, have a remedy against establishments that sell liquor.

As the legislative terms winds down, it appears another year will pass without a liquor sales reform passing the state Senate. In 2010, Governor Tom Corbett ran on a platform that promised to get the state out of the business of selling alcohol. After four years, there is little progress.

Last year, the House passed legislation that would have phased the state out of retail and wholesale liquor sales. The bill stalled in the Senate. In early May 2014, a watered down Senate plan had surfaced.

Details of the proposed Senate plan

The plan would not have shut down the state wine and liquor system. It would have allowed restaurant license-holders, which includes some supermarkets, to sell wine along with the beer they can currently sell. Beer distributors would have been able to sell six-packs of beer, growlers and wine. Sales of stronger spirits, however, would only be allowed in state-run stores.

The Senate did not vote on the plan before lawmakers adjourned. The earliest the issue could come up for discussion again is June.

Liability of establishments that over-serve

With the current system, bar owners are not required to carry liability insurance and liquor stores are state run. This can make it challenging to recover damages for those injured.

The Pennsylvania Dram Shop Act states that it is unlawful for a licensee - a restaurant or bar - to provide alcoholic beverages to anyone who is 'visibly intoxicated' or a minor. To prove a case, there must be physical evidence of intoxication, such as poor coordination, slurred speech, bumping into people or glassy or blood-shot eyes.

In a fatal Pennsylvania wrong way crash, the estate of the woman killed brought a dram shop lawsuit against the bar who served the wrong way driver. The Dram Shop Act imposes liability for third party injuries when a customer was served alcohol while visibly intoxicated. Eyewitnesses or surveillance video may be ways to prove that the individual was visibly intoxicated, but these cases can be tough to prove.

In other cases, individuals who are over-served often suffer life-altering injuries themselves. A recently settled lawsuit details a case where a man was served more than 20 alcoholic drinks in two hours after he had already been drinking and was visibly intoxicated. He fell down a staircase, hit his head and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was able to settle prior to trial with the bar that served the drinks.

Dram shop cases may be even more complicated if the restaurant or bar did not carry sufficient liability insurance. In cases where an establishment possibly provided alcohol to an individual who was intoxicated, it is important to seek the assistance of an experienced personal injury attorney.