2015 | Politics

Legislators to Pursue Dram Shop Law, Again

The measure and others could toughen drunken driving penalties in the wake of a Montgomery County police officer's death

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Del. Kathleen Dumais is expected to pursue legislation to create a dram shop law in Maryland in the upcoming General Assembly session.

via Kathleen Dumais' website

State legislators are likely to take up a bill in the upcoming General Assembly that would hold restaurant owners or workers civilly liable if a visibly intoxicated person leaves a restaurant, gets behind the wheel and injures or kills someone in a drunken driving collision.

Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-District 15, Poolesville and North Potomac) said Monday she plans to reintroduce a bill she first introduced in 2011 that would do just that when the state legislative body convenes in January.

The bill, known as a dram shop bill after the legal term for bars, hasn’t made it out of committee in the three previous sessions it was put forth. But a push for tougher penalties for drunken driving violations following the recent death of 24-year-old Montgomery County Police Officer Noah Leotta, may help bring more attention to the legislation.

Leotta was struck on Rockville Pike by Luis Gustavo Reluzco, 47, of Olney, who police said had been drinking at the nearby Hooters and who wasn’t able to stand straight at the scene. Police are still awaiting blood test results to determine Reluzco’s blood alcohol level at the time of the collision.

After Leotta’s death, Chief Thomas Manger said Leotta’s family likely wouldn’t receive “real justice” because of Maryland’s weak penalties for drunken driving.

For Dumais, who is now a veteran of promoting the legislation and serves as the vice chair of the House judiciary committee, a battle remains.

“This is a major policy shift for Maryland, and certainly one that I support, but it’s not unusual that it may take a few years to get it done,” Dumais said.

She said it often takes another tragedy for action to happen. In 2011, when she first introduced the dram shop bill, she had done so on behalf of an attorney who represented the family of 10-year-old Jazimen Warr. Warr was killed on I-270 in 2008 when the vehicle she was riding in was struck by a drunken driver who had been at the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg.

Warr’s family attempted to hold the owners of Dogfish Head Alehouse civilly responsible, but Maryland doesn’t have a dram shop law. In 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled a tavern does not have a responsibility to an injured person harmed by a drunken driver when it considered Warr’s lawsuit. The appeals judges wrote it was a matter that should be left to the legislature.

Dumais said opposition in the legislature has come from bar owners, who fear their insurance will go up if the measure becomes law.

“We wanted to have a bill that is balanced, so to do that we sort of indicated that bar owners would have certain defenses,” Dumais said. “If they’re complying with the law and had consistent training, that would certainly be taken into consideration.”

The bill limits the statute of limitations to one year and doesn’t include social host liability provisions. Those would enable individuals to sue someone who hosts a party at their home or another location, if someone from that party causes significant injury or property damage after being overserved at the party.

The parents of Alex Murk, who was killed in a June collision in North Potomac that also killed his classmate Calvin Li, have called for a change in state law that would enable them to pursue a civil case against the host of the party that took place before the collision.

The two 18-year-old Wootton High School graduates were killed when a car driven by former Wootton quarterback Sam Ellis struck a tree and flipped over after the young men left a teen-drinking party where a parent, Kenneth Saltzman, was present, according to police. Saltzman later pleaded guilty in December to two counts of allowing underage drinking and was fined $5,000.

In a September statement released through their attorney, David and Pamela Murk wrote that the fact Saltzman only could receive up to a $5,000 fine “should shock the conscience of any law-abiding concerned parent.”

“THAT is the law that needs to change, if we want to have any chance of changing the way our society thinks and acts,” wrote the Murks. “Hold the adults responsible.”

Dumais, who said the deadly collision happened near her home, said adding a social host provision to her bill would make it extremely difficult to pass.

As of June 2013, 30 states have dram shop laws in place for licensed establishments such as restaurants, bars and liquor stores, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Dumais added that other legislators may introduce bills to strengthen penalties around drunken driving—including one that could lower the bar for installing ignition interlock systems, which require drivers to take a breathalyzer before operating their vehicle. Another bill could focus on lengthier sentences for repeat drunken drivers who severely injure or kill someone else.

Del. Shane Robinson (D-District 39, Gaithersburg), the chair of the Montgomery County House delegation, spoke earlier this month about Officer Leotta’s death and said improving the drunken driving laws in the state would be a focus this session.

“I haven’t spoken with everybody in the delegation, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re going to do that and something’s going to be done so we can prevent this in the future,” Robinson said at the Committee for Montgomery Legislative Breakfast last week.

Dumais said the process may be challenging and there’s not one “silver bullet,” but she said, “It will be front-and-center for our committee this year. I hope we make some progress for the families that have lost loved ones.”