Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Bars would face less civil liability for accidents resulting from overdrinking under a bill heard Tuesday morning.

As it stands now, under what is known as “dram shop law,” establishments selling or distributing alcoholic beverages can be fined damages, if the consumer was less than 21 years-old, was visibly intoxicated or if the establishment in some way coerced alcohol consumption.

SB 107 would limit the damages for allegations like emotional distress per incident to $250,000 for all impacted. There would be a limit of punitive damages, or a fine to punish negligence, of $250,000, but there would be a higher bar, as serving a visibly intoxicated person would not be enough, instead it would align the requirements with what is necessary in civil cases in other contexts.

Alexander Blewett, a personal injury lawyer from Great Falls, spoke in opposition during the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs committee Tuesday. He said under this law, if a drunk driver crashed into a bus of 50 school children, killing them, that $250,000 in damages would have to be split 50 ways.

“Imagine addressing those 50 families and telling them their children are worth $250,000 divided by 50,” Blewett said. “That’s what the bill does.”

Bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R- Great Falls, said the reason for the change he’s heard of times a patron visited multiple bars and the first bar of the evening gets the suit.

“At that point in the evening, they would not have been physically intoxicated,” he said. “It’s just simple fairness.”

As proposed, blood alcohol content, or the percentage of alcohol in a person’s blood, would be excluded from evidence in civil cases.

“How is this server supposed to know what your hypothetical blood alcohol level is? There’s no way they can do that. We don’t take blood tests at the bar door when you go in to have an evening at an establishment,” Fitzpatrick said.

Blewett said that preventing BAC evidence would prevent a patron from providing relevant evidence in a case that could go against what a bartender claims they observe.

“They’re just trying to take this away from the judges, take this away from the jury and hamstring the victims of these horrible wrongful death claims that result when people get overserved,” he said.

However, Fitzpatrick said one reason for this bill was recent skyrocketing insurance rates for alcohol establishments.

“Insurance companies are leaving the state, and a lot of it is because of the liability concerns related to alcohol injuries,” Fitzpatrick said.

John Iverson of the Montana Tavern Association said insurance was the No. 1 issue the association hears about.

“We need to have an insurance marketplace that’s available and affordable for people to access,” he said.

Blewett said it’s very difficult under the current law to bring a “dram shop” case. He said that families on the road are the ones bringing these cases, and he said this bill would make it impossible to do so.

“That way it’s a win-win for the insurance company. They have no liability for the tavern owners and owners keep buying the insurance,” he said.