Since September 2001, more than 180,000 men, women, and children have died in the United States as a result of drunk driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 10,000 people a year – about one every 52 minutes – die in traffic collisions linked to alcohol. In response to the deaths of two UC San Diego medical students who were killed last May by a wrong-way drunk driver, one California lawmaker is taking action and offering an innovative proposal aimed at reducing the number of alcohol-related injuries and deaths in this state.

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This new legislative proposal would require bartenders in California to stop serving patrons who have become too drunk and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Francisco is sponsoring the bill in the California State Assembly. The legislation, if it becomes law, would require all bartenders in California to attend at least four hours of training on topics including the “social impact” of alcohol, the impact of alcohol on the body, alcohol-related state laws, and “intervention techniques” that bartenders can use safely and effectively with drunk patrons.

WHAT ARE THE DETAILS OF THE PROPOSED LAW?

The legislation, Assembly Bill 2121, is called the Responsible Interventions for Beverage Servers Training Act (or “RIBS”). Bartenders would be required to complete the course within three months of accepting employment, and they would have to take the training again every three years. Establishments that serve alcohol would be required to certify that employees have completed the training. Bars and restaurants that continue to employ untrained servers could have their liquor licenses revoked if the RIBS Act becomes law. Sonoma County is one of several jurisdictions that already require employee training for establishments that serve alcohol.

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California law currently requires bartenders to stop serving anyone who is “obviously intoxicated,” but no training is legally required. If the RIBS Act becomes law, it would go into effect in 2020. It’s not originally a California idea and eighteen states already require servers to complete alcohol training courses. Sam Hubbard, an instructor at the Sacramento School of Bartending, has been teaching bartending for five years, and he believes the proposal can save lives. “This may be somebody’s worst night of their life, where they screw everything up and you’re the person who could’ve maybe helped change that,” Hubbard told KMAX-TV.

CAN A BAR OR BARTENDER BE HELD LIABLE FOR A PATRON’S ACTS?

If the RIBS Act becomes law, it would not increase the liability of a business that sells or serves alcohol. However, the establishments that currently chose to require employees to have alcohol server training are already getting a break on insurance premiums. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control offers a free, voluntary program called Licensee Education on Alcohol and Drugs – “LEAD” – for restaurant and bar personnel.3

In certain states, some bars, restaurants, and liquor stores may be held liable for selling or serving alcohol to anyone who causes injuries or death as a result of driving while intoxicated. However, this is not the case in California. Under the current laws, motorists charged with DUI in California can’t blame the bartender, and instead, they’ll need to get legal representation from a California DUI defense attorney. The law protects restaurants, liquor stores, bars, and private hosts from liability in DUI cases unless they have served alcohol to a driver under 21 years old.

Thus, bartenders, servers, and their employers in California cannot be targeted by a personal injury lawsuit if one of their customers causes a personal injury after buying or being served alcohol. The law says that “the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.”

The exception in the current law concerns serving alcohol to minors. In California, if a driver under 21 injures or kills someone while impaired by alcohol, the person or establishment that served or sold the alcohol may be held liable in civil court, while the driver will be charged with underage DUI and require the services of a California DUI defense attorney. There is also one other charge that bartenders and servers could conceivably face. Under the California Business and Professions Code, serving alcohol “to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person” can be charged as a misdemeanor.

IF FRIENDS DRINK AT YOUR HOME, CAN YOU BE HELD LIABLE?

If you are an adult in California, and your adult friend visits your home, drinks one beer too many, and injures someone in a collision while driving home, it’s extremely unlikely that you would be sued. In California, a “social host” is anyone who provides alcohol to others, but the social host law exists specifically to prevent private hosts from serving people under the age of 21. Hosts can be held liable if they serve alcohol to underage drinkers who then injure or kill someone in a traffic accident. Hosts in these situations are not charged with a crime, but personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits can be quite costly, and homeowner’s insurance rarely covers liquor liability.

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The social host law isn’t designed to punish hosts but rather to protect the public from underage drinking drivers and to protect other drivers as well. In 2012 in this state, more than ten percent of the fatalities in alcohol-related traffic collisions were persons under 21. In fact, alcohol is the number one factor in the overwhelming majority of traffic collisions involving teenagers. As a result, the courts in California – and the juries in personal injury cases – can impose quite harsh penalties on anyone found liable for accidents where teens and alcohol are involved.

WHAT SHOULD CALIFORNIA LAWMAKERS CONSIDER?

As the Responsible Interventions for Beverage Servers Training Act moves through the California State Legislature, it’s important to remember that there’s no foolproof way to determine whether a person is too intoxicated to drive. Doctors, veteran police officers, and even the most advanced breathalyzer technology can get it wrong, so the proposed new law might place an unrealistic burden on bartenders and servers.

The RIBS legislation asks servers to determine – instantly, for all realistic purposes – if one of their customers is too drunk to drive, and they may have to make that judgment in a loud, crowded, and busy nightclub on a Friday or Saturday night. While people who serve alcohol can probably use all the help and training they can get, California’s lawmakers should also make fairness a concern as they consider the RIBS proposal.