Judges to decide if bar is liable in man's death


Joel Abramson wants to change Maryland laws that have for decades protected taverns from civil lawsuits over the actions of their intoxicated customers.

"I'm asking you today to right the wrong," Mr. Abramson, a Columbia lawyer, told the state Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis yesterday.

The judges -- John Garrity, Theodore Bloom and Arrie Davis -- did not make any decisions yesterday after hearing Mr. Abramson's arguments. They did not say when a ruling would be completed.

Mr. Abramson is representing Howard Duncan, a Laurel man, whose son, 24, died from injuries in a car accident after spending an evening drinking at an Anne Arundel County tavern in December 1989.

Mr. Duncan filed suit in Anne Arundel Circuit Court against the tavern, the Happy Harbor Inn in Deale, and its owner, Levi Thomas Wellons 3rd, in November 1991.

He sought $13 million in damages for the death of his son, Kevin Michael Duncan, claiming that the tavern's employees continued serve the patron even though he was visibly intoxicated. Shortly after leaving the bar, Kevin Duncan drove his car off the roadway and struck a tree. He had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent at the time of the crash.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Robert Heller Jr. dismissed the suit in April. Mr. Abramson filed an appeal at the Court of Special Appeals on Mr. Duncan's behalf in September.

Mr. Duncan, who operates a snack bar in the Howard Circuit Courthouse, said that he is pursuing the suit to get Maryland to change what he calls "antiquated" laws.

"I don't think it's fair for others to suffer what I'm suffering now because of someone else's negligence," Mr. Duncan said.

In court yesterday, Mr. Abramson faulted the appellate courts for continuously turning down appeals in cases that would hold taverns responsible for their patrons.

He also argued in court papers that the Duncan case gives judges an opportunity "to provide an impetus that will stop bars from seeking excess profits that cost lives."

However, the courts have traditionally rejected such appeals because it is the responsibility of the state General Assembly to establish laws addressing the liability issue.

Paul Hackner, an Annapolis attorney representing the Happy Harbor Inn, maintained that the courts must continue rejecting appeals such as the Duncan case until the state legislature establishes a law.

Mr. Hackner noted that the state Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, refused to take action on a suit similar to the Duncan case as recently as December 1991.

Maryland is one of five states in the country where taverns are protected from civil lawsuits over the actions of customers. But Maryland taverns face criminal charges if they serve alcohol to overly intoxicated patrons.

Brenda Barnes, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Maryland, said her group would support a state law on tavern liability.

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