South Carolina Bar, Owners Liable for $10 Million for Serving Drunk Patron

July 30, 2010

South Carolina liquor stores, bars and their owners may be liable for injuries caused by a patron they “knew or should have known” was intoxicated even if the customer does not appear drunk.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has affirmed a $10 million jury award against a bar and its owners personally for selling alcohol to an intoxicated man who later crashed and injured John Hartfield and his father.

The state’s high court agreed that sellers of alcohol are liable if they knowingly sell alcohol to a patron who they “knew or should have known” was intoxicated and that the customer does not have to be visibly drunk.

The defendants, owners of The Getaway Bar & Grille, one of the bars where Hoyt Helton was a regular, tried to argue that this standard was lower than the reasonable or prudent person language used in previous decisions that turned on whether the bartenders negligently served alcoholic beverages to a person who, by his appearance or otherwise, “would lead a prudent man to believe that person was intoxicated.”

But Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, writing for the majority in a case appealed from a circuit court, said this was not a lower standard. “In our view, ‘knew or should have known’ is an articulation of an objective ‘reasonable person” standard. We see no difference between the ‘reasonable person’ and ‘should have known’ standards,” Toal wrote in Hartfield v. the Getaway Lounge.

The court said that the state’s law does not require that the intoxicated person be visibly intoxicated, only that a person “knowingly” sells beer or wine to an intoxicated person. Though the Helton case focused on the visible symptoms, other cases under the law “might concern knowledge acquired through a different medium,” according to the court.

The Supreme Court also upheld the lower court’s decision to allow the crash victims to pierce the corporate shield of the bar, thereby exposing the individual owners to liability for the injuries. The court noted that one of the requirements for piercing corporate veils is that there be an “element of injustice or fundamental unfairness” if the acts of the corporation be not regarded as the acts of the individuals. “The essence of the fairness test is simply that an individual businessman cannot be allowed to hide from the normal consequences of carefree entrepreneuring by doing so through a corporate shell,” the court held, citing previous court rulings on the topic.

After visiting a number of bars one night in July 2003, Hoyt Helton drove his vehicle across the center line and struck a car in which John Erik Hartfield was a passenger. Helton died at the scene and a state toxicologist recorded his blood alcohol content (BAC) at .212. Hartfield, who suffered serious injuries, and his father filed suit against three bars Helton visited that evening. They were awarded a $10 million verdict against The Getaway Lounge & Grill.

Three justices joined in the majority opinion. Justice Costa M. Pleicone dissented, arguing that the plaintiffs’ case was based, not on evidence, but on speculation.

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