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Legal Matters: What’s the worst that could happen?

Jerry Farrell, Jr., Attorney

By Jerry Farrell, Jr.

A guy walks into your bar. He sways ever so slightly as he approaches you. His breath knocks you over when he orders a rum and Coke. You think, “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I serve him?” A gal walks into your package store. Looks a bit young. Can’t find her ID. Tells you she’s 22.  Thinks she left her license at home. Wants a six-pack. You think, “It’s only a six-pack. What’s the worst that could happen if I sell her some beer?” Let me tell you – a lot can happen, and it’s all bad for you.

A person who violates the liquor laws in Connecticut opens himself to action on three levels: Criminal prosecution, civil liability and administrative action. Let’s take them one at a time.

Yes, you may be arrested for selling to an underage person or an intoxicated person. If you’re arrested, you may end up appearing in court, probably several times. You’ll lose time from your business. You may end up spending money on an attorney to defend you. If you’re lucky, the case may be nolled or you could be offered community service. If you’re not lucky, you could be fined. If you’re really, really not lucky, the prosecutor could take a hard line, pursue the charges aggressively, and you may have to use up your one chance to participate in the accelerated rehabilitation program.

There will be a public record of your conviction. You’re going to have to disclose your conviction to Liquor Control when you renew your liquor permit. The newspapers may report the criminal proceedings. And in this current situation with immigration laws changing, it is noteworthy that conviction of this crime could make someone who doesn’t have a clear immigration status subject to deportation.

You sell that rum and Coke to an intoxicated person. He drives off and hits someone. Then someone sues you under the Dram Shop Act. Connecticut law holds sellers and servers to a very high standard. The plaintiffs only have to show that the customer was visibly or perceivably intoxicated; the plaintiff does not have to prove the seller actually saw the customer act in an intoxicated or perceived intoxicated state. Hopefully you have Dram Shop insurance to cover this situation, but will it cover all of a potential judgement against you? Could you be personally liable for a judgment over your policy limits? You’ll be spending hours with investigators and attorneys; your deposition will be taken and you’ll end up sitting in a courtroom at trial. That’s not even taking into account the tragic outcome for the people involved in the accident.

And last of all, the Department of Consumer Protection’s Liquor Control Commission may pursue administrative action against your liquor permit. The department places a very high priority on pursuing cases concerning sales to underage persons and intoxicated persons. After liquor control completes its investigation, you may be summoned to Hartford to appear at a compliance meeting.

If you’re lucky, you will likely be offered to resolve the alleged violation by way of a fine, period of suspension, or attendance at a 6-hour server training course. This resolution will be posted on the department’s website, and a press release will be given to local media outlets, which may result in adverse publicity for your establishment. You may expend money having an attorney accompany you to the compliance meeting. You will lose income from the days you are prohibited from selling alcohol. If you’re not so lucky, the department may seek to revoke your liquor license. That means you (and anyone else owning a part of your backer) are prohibited from holding any liquor license for a year.

In addition to everything else, your personal and business reputation is going to suffer. The public views the sale of alcohol to minors and intoxicated persons as particularly offensive and considers the individual who made the sale to be contemptable. You may say the sale was an honest mistake but the public may consider you a greedy, callous business owner.

Get the idea? It’s all bad for you. Now that you know what the possible outcomes are for making those sales, don’t you want to think long and hard about whether or not you should be making them?

This column is not intended to be legal advice; consult an attorney for answers to your specific questions and situation.

Jerry Farrell, Jr., is an attorney-at-law in private practice in Wallingford. He served as Commissioner of Consumer Protection and Chairperson of the Liquor Control Commission. Farrell represents clients in all three tiers of the industry. Through Connecticut Liquor Law Educational Services LLC, he offers a variety of instructional courses covering areas of interest to the industry. Contact at jerry@ctliquorlaw.com.

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