South Carolina ranks in the top 10 in U.S. drunken driving deaths, even though 22 states have more people than we do. A third of the people who die on our highways are killed by drunken drivers. The results are similar by pretty much any measure, a predictable result of the Legislature’s anemic efforts to deter drunken driving.
Our legislators (or at least our House members) have refused to embrace the widespread use of ignition interlock devices — a miracle technology that has been proven in 34 states to prevent drunken driving by people previously convicted of DUI, by making it impossible to start their cars if they’ve been drinking.
Lawmakers have refused to close the loopholes that render practically unenforceable our law that prohibits driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% or higher. They’ve maintained laws that make it easy for people convicted of DUI get back behind the wheel immediately and that encourage people to refuse a DUI test and thus make a conviction more difficult even under an older DUI statute.
They’ve even refused to require people who serve alcohol in bars and restaurants to complete a training course so they can better identify underage and overly intoxicated customers and cut them off.
The one bright spot in our efforts to prevent you and your children and neighbors from getting killed or maimed by a drunken driver has been the civil justice system: If a bartender keeps selling drinks to an obviously impaired patron who leaves the bar and kills someone, the bar can be liable for damages. Ditto a convenience store or grocery store that sells alcohol to a minor or someone who’s clearly impaired.
Unlike 30 other states, we don’t have a law that specifically allows these so-called “dram shop” lawsuits, but our courts have recognized them under the common-law theory that establishments should realize it when a patron could harm someone. And under a 2005 state law, a business that sells alcohol can be ordered to pay the entire cost of a multimillion-dollar damage award even if a jury finds that other parties shared responsibility.
The threat that a business might have to pay out huge awards if it’s too reckless about selling alcohol has produced some modest improvement in behavior, with some bars and restaurants voluntarily requiring server training. Of course, it’s not enough. And now, there appears to be an effort to take away that motivator.
No legislation has been filed to limit the legal liability of businesses that sell alcohol, but The Post and Courier’s Jamie Lovegrove reports that an outspoken advocate of changing the 2005 law was a featured speaker last month at a “Tort Reform Summit” held in the Columbia office of the lobbyist for that advocate, Greg Parker. Mr. Parker threatened earlier this year to pull his Georgia-based Parker’s Kitchen convenience store chain out of South Carolina if the Legislature didn’t change the law to reduce the damages his and other companies may face for irresponsible or illegal alcohol sales. That threat came as his company faces a wrongful death lawsuit over the notorious 2019 boating accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach; the lawsuit alleges that the boat’s driver, then-19-year-old Paul Murdaugh, illegally bought alcohol at one of his stores.
A lot is murky about the breadth and support for the lobbying effort, because Mr. Lovegrove was barred from attending the summit, and participants are vague about their strategy. A bill proposed by one of the state’s most powerful legislators, Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey, would change how liability is distributed in cases that don’t involve alcohol; S.145 would leave the law in place that treats alcohol-related lawsuits differently, but Mr. Massey said he expects there will be efforts to include the change Mr. Parker wants.
Precisely the best way to allocate liability among multiple defendants is murky as well. Businesses say South Carolina’s current law can unfairly force any deep-pocketed defendants — not just those that sell alcohol — to pay more than their fair share of the damages. Plaintiff’s lawyers, on the other hand, say that by distributing some of the liability to defendants who don’t have any money, Sen. Massey’s legislation cheats injured victims of some damages they deserve. Both arguments have merit.
But here’s what’s not murky: Drunken driving is a huge public safety threat in South Carolina, and our state has a tremendous interest in deterring it. There are many ways to accomplish that, and unfortunately our Legislature has refused to try most of them. But one way is to make it prohibitively expensive for businesses to sell alcohol to minors and people who are already inebriated, and we have a law on the books that is a step in that direction. The last thing we need to do is repeal or water down that law.
If that means we have to make do with fewer places to buy an ice-cold six-pack, or even say goodbye to a few college bars, that’s a loss our state can live with.