Robert Bianchi: What the Tiger Woods lawsuit tells us about Florida (Hint: Wake up!)

A lawsuit filed against Tiger Woods, his girlfriend, and the restaurant/bar Woods owns demonstrates how Florida’s liquor liability laws hail from the time of the caveman.

The family of Nicolas Immesberger, 24 years old, filed a lawsuit claiming that their son, a bartender at The Woods Jupiter restaurant, was served excessive amounts of alcohol on December 10, 2018 and that the bar employees allowed him to drive his car with a blood/alcohol content of about .256 -- more than three times the legal limit.

Immesberger was traveling 70 mph in a 55 mph zone when he crashed his car and was killed. The lawsuit contends that Tiger Woods, his girlfriend, who was a manager at the restaurant, and employees knew that Immesberger was a “habitual drunkard?” but nevertheless served him drinks.

TIGER WOODS SUED FOR WRONGFUL DEATH AFTER HIS RESTAURANT EMPLOYEE ALLEGEDLY DRINKS AT WORK, DIES IN CRASH

“Habitual drunkard?” What kind of antiquated term is that, and why would the lawyers use such an odd term in court documents?

Well, it turns out, that Florida hasn’t received the memo about the dangers of drinking and driving in as robust a way that most other states have.

As a former EMT and prosecutor who first hand has seen the damage of drinking and driving to all involved (yes, even the offender), I have witnessed a sizable shift over the years with this issue. Officials have employed a comprehensive number of tools in the criminal and civil laws to minimize the carnage of these cases. And, it has had a dramatic effect, even if it is true that more can still be done.

But, Florida is still in the dark ages to some extent. It turns out that the lawyers for the estate of Immesberger used the term “habitual drunkard” since that is what is mandated by the civil law in Florida to prove a case.

In most states, the commercial serving of alcohol to a patron who is “visibly intoxicated” or whom a server knows, based on consumption, will likely be unable to drive a car, has an affirmative duty under the law to care for them.

As a result, bars in these other states have to be very careful about how much they serve a patron if they want to avoid civil liability. Also, as a result, you see responsible bars training their staffs about how to identify an intoxicated person and what actions can be taken to ensure they are not a danger on the road.

Florida needs to get out the dark ages and protect its citizens from a danger that is well known to all. 

Florida’s civil laws, however, are 180 degrees different from most states. Serving a visibly intoxicated person is not a basis for a lawsuit, nor is allowing them to drive. It puts the responsibly on the intoxicated person to act responsibly. What!?

The only exceptions to this law in Florida are serving an underage person or a “habitual drunkard.” So, what exactly is a "habitual drunkard"? The courts in Florida define it this way:

“…someone whose habit of indulgence in strong drink is so fixed that he cannot resist getting drunk anytime the temptation is offered, with the inebriety frequent, excessive, and the dominant passion.”

This may be hard to prove and it is a very narrow, limited basis to impose liability upon a bar compared to the laws in other states.

In the complaint filed by the estate, the lawyers for Immesberger allege that Tiger and his employees knew about Immesberger’s drinking problems, knew that he was attending AA, and that, based upon how much he drank at the bar on many occasions, that they knew he was a “habitual drunkard.” We will have to wait to see if those facts are proven in the end.

But, instead of laws that encourage commercial establishments to act responsibly when serving alcohol, the law disincentives bars, and restaurants from ensuring they are not serving a ticking timebomb who could kill the patron or an innocent person on the road.

If the law imposed the typical standard of not serving a “visibly intoxicated person” (regardless of whether they are a habitual drunkard, or not) then it stands to reason that a person served so many drinks to get to a .256 BAC would have demonstrated signs that he was impaired, triggering the restaurant or bar to protect the person from himself, or from harming others.

We should be doing everything we can to make sure people drink responsibly. But, we also need to make sure that commercial establishments serving alcohol serve it responsibly. That is a holistic approach to a problem that will save lives.

Florida needs to get out the dark ages and protect its citizens from a danger that is well known to all.

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As an EMT, I have peeled too many innocent dead people from cars due to drunk driving. And as a prosecutor, I have seen how it has forever affected families of both the deceased and the defendant.

Florida, wake up!

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