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Update: Senators reject bill to hold bars and restaurants liable in alcohol-related injuries and death

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Crixell Matthews
The Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note: This article was updated Feb. 2 at 4:05 p.m.

Virginia senators have struck down a bill that would have allowed people to sue bars and restaurants – if they serve alcohol to an underage customer who goes on to cause an accident or injury while under the influence.  

They’re called dram shop laws, and Virginia is one of only a handful of states that does not have one on the books. They make businesses liable for selling alcohol to individuals who then cause injury or property damage.

On Wednesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted down a proposal from Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) to bring one to the commonwealth. Obenshain, who serves on the committee, was joined by three Democrats in voting for the measure, while 10 lawmakers voted against it. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Delegates that is still being reviewed by lawmakers. 

Mark Dix with the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association says the proposal would have built on current efforts in the General Assembly to curb hazing.

“Hazing doesn’t just happen behind the closed doors of a fraternity or a sorority,” he said. “Oftentimes, these establishments can be the sites of pledging events.”

But some industry groups opposed the bill. Tom Lisk with the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association said in testimony Monday that it would have increased insurance costs for businesses. 

“It is not a cure for drunk driving. It does not stop someone who is going to be negligent from being negligent,” Lisk said.

It is illegal in Virginia for an adult to sell alcohol to a minor. A violation is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail or both.

The Virginia Supreme Court has previously held in two cases, Williamson v. Old Brogue and Robinson v. Matt Mary Moran, that it’s the consumption, not the furnishing of alcohol that causes alcohol-related accidents.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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