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Bill regulates bartender responsibility

April 24, 2001
By: Aritz Parra
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 421, SB 433 & SB 248

JEFFERSON CITY - Run off the road by a drunk driver in February 1998, Rebecca Jaynes suffered liver lacerations, cerebral blood clots and multiple fractures.

"She almost died," said her daughter, Betty Belzeski, who was also in the car.

Belzeski said the man who caused the accident had been drinking at a local bar. "He had walked in appearing drunk and they continued to serve him from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.," she said.

Belzeski told her story to a Senate committee in an effort to stop a House bill that would make it more difficult to punish bartenders for the misdeeds of their customers.

Under a state Supreme Court decision, the Belzeski family and others may file a lawsuit against those who serve alcohol to obviously intoxicated persons who later kill or injure someone in a motor vehicle accident.

Similar efforts to provide protection from lawsuits have cleared both legislative chambers.

Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, sponsored the proposal approved Wednesday by a Senate committee that requires that plaintiffs prove servers know "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the recipient was intoxicated. This most stringent of legal standards is usually reserved for criminal cases.

"I don't believe that is fair," said Mike Holzknecht, attorney for one of the victims at the Nevada accident. "If a tavern owner is so negligent and so careless and so irresponsible, then I think they should be held just as the same standard as the rest of us," he said. "We think that is a special protection that's been given to this guys who don't deserve unusual circumstances."

The legislation was prompted by a Missouri Supreme Court decision that last spring struck down an existing law that limited lawsuits against taverns. Prior to the decision, a 1985 law held drivers, not servers, responsible.

The bill approved in the House now awaits full Senate debate, where it will enjoy the committee chairman's support.

"The person that decided to go in and consume the alcohol wherever they did that and then decided to drive a vehicle is the one that should be responsible," said Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St.Charles.

The bill enjoys support from both sides of the aisle.

The Supreme Court decision has raised the cost for liability insurance by taverns, said Sen. Wiggins, D-Kansas City, who will handle the bill in the Senate.

Rep. Ted Farnen, D-Mexico, cosponsor of the House version of the bill said that "every single bar, restaurant, hotel or motel has had this problem after the court decision".

According to Graham, Columbia taverns have complained about the high price of insurance liability. "The premiums have risen up to three or for times for every single establishment," he said.

For Belzeski, "If you are going to own a bar and sell alcohol, you need to have such a liability insurance. It's the consequence of owning a bar."

Mothers Against Drunken Driving of Missouri claims 40 percent of driving-related fatalities were alcohol related.

"The Supreme Court decision has not made a major difference from our stand point. We only know about a few cases of victims who have filed wrongful death suits after that," said Bud Bulke. "If this whole thing is driven by insurance rates raised, we don't think that the decision should be challenged, overturned, statutorily removed or anything else."

But in Sen. Gross' opinion, it's clear that the Supreme Court decision is specifically benefiting trial attorneys. "They love it because they have open court now to suit everybody who sells liquor by the drink for anybody who gets in any accident," he said.