Alcohol and Server Liability: When to Cut Someone Off

Most of us have probably been to a bar or restaurant at some point and had to deal with that one person who has clearly had a few too many. Maybe they’re talking loudly or incoherently, or maybe they’re just having trouble keeping their eyes open and their head up. For fellow patrons of the bar, this person can be annoying or obnoxious, but for servers at the bar, this person can be a huge liability.

Across the country, servers have a large level of responsibility put on them when it comes to serving those who are intoxicated. In many cases, a server can be held liable and can face punishment from the law if it is deemed that they served a person who was already intoxicated. Some states have even stricter laws when it comes to serving alcohol, so things can get tricky for those working behind the bar. To further complicate matters, bartenders may be held accountable for a DWI or DUI accident that is caused by someone that they served under the “Dram Shop Laws” enforced by numerous states.

Dram Shop Laws

Although it is not federally mandated, many individual states have adopted “Dram shop Laws.” Dram shop laws, in short, are laws that hold a person or establishment responsible if they sell alcohol to an individual that is intoxicated. These laws apply not only to the bartender or liquor sales clerk, but to waitresses and other staff as well. Washington is one such state that enforces these laws and anyone serving or selling alcohol there is faced with a great responsibility.

Cutting Someone Off
“I’m cutting you off” seems to be something that is said in movies or on TV shows more often than in real life, but for a bartender or server it (or some variation of it) can be a very useful phrase. What gets tricky is knowing when not to serve someone. Different people react differently to alcohol, and it can be extremely difficult for a bartender to know if someone has been drinking too much or not.

There are a few measures a bartender or server can take to better recognize if someone should not be served. A lot of certification and training programs use what they call the “traffic light system.” It’s called this, because Green = sober, Yellow = getting intoxicated, and Red = intoxicated.

This system involves observing customers as soon as they walk in and then simply talking to customers and analyzing their situation. Some of the questions that can be brought up in conversation are:

  • Does the customer appear tired, depressed, or stressed?
  • Is the customer on a diet?
  • Is the customer taking any medication or drugs?
  • Is the customer drunk already or planning to get drunk

Once a server has a grasp on whether a customer is in the green, yellow, or red, he or she can act accordingly. There are some steps that can be followed to help from pushing someone who is in the green to red. These steps can include things like:

  • Serving a drink only to someone who wants one
  • Serving a single drink at a time to each customer
  • Encouraging food with drinks if the establishment offers food
  • Serving glasses of water with all drinks, especially those served straight-up (from A Guide for Bartenders)

The Traffic Light System is only one of many that is taught to bartenders and servers. There are a number of certification and “responsible server” courses available that can pass on a range of methods that make server liability clear and offer methods for dealing with customers who are drinking.

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