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Editorial: Dram-shop responsibility

Although this week a U.S. District Court jury has ruled that a popular Ocean City nightclub has no legal responsibility for a rape that occurred in its parking lot after bar employees escorted a visibly intoxicated woman outside and left her there alone, the case against Seacrets raises a larger issue: Maryland’s lack of any dram-shop liability law.

Dram-shop laws hold bars responsible for the consequences for patrons who have been served too much alcohol. Maryland is one of just seven states in the nation that have no such legislation, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The others are Virginia, Delaware, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The rationale in avoiding passage of dram-shop legislation is clear — that individuals are responsible for their own actions, including how much they drink and what happens while they are intoxicated. This concept of individual responsibility is a powerful one that runs deep in our national culture, and it is not without merit.

That being said, it’s quite difficult to argue against the concrete results from legislative actions that were once viewed as overly intrusive and in direct contrast with the spirit of individualism that defines many Americans. Take, for example, laws governing seat-belt use. Forty-nine states have mandatory seat-belt laws and, according to a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, 242 lives in Maryland were saved from 2004 to 2008 because of seat-belt usage.

Back to dram-shop laws.

In the absence of legislative action, the state’s highest court will be taking on the issue next month in a case out of Montgomery County.

In 2011, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eric M. Johnson broke with Maryland law and ruled to allow the grandfather of a 10-year-old girl killed by a drunken driver to sue the Gaithersburg bar that had served the driver drinks and, according to the family of the girl, let him drive away knowing that he was intoxicated.

Johnson said the time was “ripe to the core” to hold bars liable for such actions.

Johnson is correct, and the legislature has been remiss in its duties by leaving a public policy of this magnitude for the courts to decide.

Legislation has a higher purpose than deciding who pays the tab when things go wrong. It holds the promise to reshape popular thought and culture, much the way our thinking has come around on cigarette smoking in restaurants or buckling up every time we get in a car. Collectively, many Marylanders have recognized the benefits of the common good served by these laws, and many would follow the practice even if the laws were repealed.

Before state lawmakers dismiss the idea of dram-shop laws yet again, they might want to pause to consider how the life of Jane Doe, the woman raped outside Seacrets, has been deeply and permanently altered. They might want to take a moment to reflect on the grandparents of Jazimen Warr, who will never see the girl they love grow up, get married or have children of her own.

They might want to spend just a bit of time to remember they have a sacred duty in working to protect all Marylanders — despite any real or perceived political cost.