Charlotte, NC -- A heartbreaking drunken driving crash in Charlotte that critically injured a young couple and killed their unborn child and the intoxicated driver spotlights a set of laws designed to prevent bars and restaurants from serving alcohol to intoxicated patrons.
Matt Eastridge and his wife, Meredith, who was six months pregnant, were driving home on Oct. 29, 2010, when police say David Huffman, who had a blood-alcohol content almost three times the legal limit and was driving more than 100 mph, slammed into their car. Huffman, 25, was leaving Eddie's Place Restaurant and Bar in south Charlotte, where he had been served at least 10 drinks.
This month, a Charlotte jury returned a $1.7 million verdict against Eddie's Place, finding that the restaurant was negligent in serving alcohol to a person it knew or should have known was intoxicated.
Matt Eastridge, 32, says he was "disgusted" when he learned that Huffman had been served "the equivalent of 15 drinks in two hours." He says he and his wife, also 32, had just pulled away from an ATM and were still accelerating in their Toyota RAV4. "Then we got smashed," he says. "We saw just enough to say, 'What's that guy doing?' By the time we said this, it was over."
The Eastridges were in the hospital for over a month, and Meredith lost the baby and 40% of her blood, Matt Eastridge says. They both required extensive surgeries and lengthy therapy. "Mentally, it was very difficult," he says. "Obviously, it was very challenging physically."
A jury returned a $1.7 million verdict against Eddie's Place in Charlotte, finding the restaurant negligent in serving alcohol to person who was later involved in an accident.(Photo: Davis Turner, Special for USA TODAY)
Rick Pinto, attorney for Eddie's Place, says Huffman was served 10 drinks over a two-hour and 10-minute period. He says restaurant employees arranged a ride home for Huffman with another patron who lived in his apartment complex. "He accepted it and then went and drove his own car anyway," Pinto says.
Pinto says an investigation by the Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board found that Eddie's Place had not served alcohol to Huffman after he was "visibly intoxicated," and that the restaurant works hard to comply with the laws on not serving people who are drunk or underage. "They've never, ever been cited for an alcohol-related violation, and they've been in business for 15 years," he says.
He says that there is a different standard for legal liability than for criminal liability. The Eastridges sued under North Carolina's law that establishes the liability of establishments that serve alcohol to obviously intoxicated or underage people who subsequently cause death or injury to others in alcohol-related crashes.
Similar laws, known as dram shop laws, are on the books in some form in all but seven states. The laws vary widely: 31 states treat individual hosts who serve alcohol to clearly intoxicated guests with liability similar to bars and restaurants, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. In 24 states, there are various limits on these laws.
In some states, it's not unlawful to serve an intoxicated person unless the server knows that person will also be driving. Some states allow the intoxicated person to sue the server for self-sustained injuries caused by drinking too much.
"The national ramifications of this problem are enormous," says Charles Monnett, the Eastridges' attorney. "In our research, we found that in 2010, there were about 10,000 drunk driving deaths in the U.S. Fifty percent of those folks were coming directly from a bar or restaurant where they were over-served."
A common criticism of the laws is that they do not emphasize personal responsibility, especially those that allow the drunken driver to sue.
And some of the laws, like North Carolina's, have too many gray areas, attorney Pinto says. "It would be helpful in our state if the law was more clear," he says. "The law is, you can't serve someone who is visibly intoxicated when you have reason to believe they are going to drive. It's not our duty to make sure no one ever leaves a restaurant with more than .08 alcohol in their system. That's not what the law is. But that may be what this jury decided."
Proponents of dram shop laws, including MADD, say that they reduce drunken driving crashes, increase publicity over the impact of over-serving customers, and cut down on excessive and illegal consumption. "Dram shop laws are important because they encourage restaurants and bars to be responsible in serving alcohol," says MADD President Jan Withers. "Establishments need to take this responsibility seriously. These laws also help provide justice for victims of drunk driving who are faced with the tremendous financial burden that follows a death or serious injury."
Richard Smith, a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein and a dram shop law expert, says that the .08 blood-alcohol content standard used in criminal cases "is meaningless in civil liability."
"In most states, the patron has to be 'visibly intoxicated' at the time of service," he says. "The critical moment is when the bartender looks at a person and makes an evaluation. It really is the moment of truth. If you are a bar or restaurant, you need to know what the law is in your state. And most importantly, you need to train your servers and bartenders about the law in your state."
The Eastridges now have a 6-month-old daughter, Sloane. But they're still haunted by the events of that October night two years ago.
"My wife and I would trade any dollar amount to have this not happen, and still have our son," Matt Eastridge says.