On August 21, 2008, Michael Eaton was a customer at Dogfish Head Alehouse. He began drinking beer and liquor at 5:00 pm, allegedly ordering fourteen bottles of beer and two drinks of hard liquor and drinking at least one other drink that was purchased for him. Mr. Eaton stopped drinking at about 10:00 pm that evening and left, but returned to the Dogfish Head about forty-five minutes later and allegedly ordered three more bottles of beer and a shot of tequila. His server cut him off and the tavern offered to call him a cab, but he declined. He left and was involved in a wreck in which a girl was injured and her sister was killed.
The parents sued the bar on the theory that the negligence of the tavern was a cause of the fatal collision. The trial court granted summary judgment (judgment without a trial) to the bar on the ground that Maryland law does not recognize "dram shop" liability.
As early as the 1950s, Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, had refused to impose liability on those who serve alcoholic beverages, reasoning that the person consuming the beverages is responsible for his own actions. The Court indicated that a change in this law would have to come from the legislature rather than the courts.
The Court of Appeals considered the issue again in the 1980s with the same result.
The Court agreed to consider the issue once again in this case. Although the law has changed in a number of states--both by legislative and judicial enactments--the Court declined the invitation to impose liability. The Court quoted with approval the Delaware Supreme Court: “The essential rationale underlying this line of cases is that the determination of whether to impose liability on tavern owners for injuries caused by intoxicated patrons involves significant public policy considerations and is best left to the General Assembly.”
This decision is the second decision this term in which the Court had an opportunity to expand the rights of injured persons but refused to do so. (The first was where the Court refused to discard the doctrine of contributory negligence, which bars injured persons from recovering if their own negligence, however slight, was a proximate cause of their injury).