TAMPA — The family of a man who died after downing more than 20 vodka shots at a Seffner bikini bar may have a tough battle ahead if they pursue a legal case.
Criminal or civil penalties in such cases are rare in the Sunshine State. Florida is one of only three states that do not have a dram shop law, which forbids bartenders from serving intoxicated people. The state places much of the responsibility on the customer, legal experts say.
In this case, that customer was Eric Morris, a 26-year-old bouncer at Angels Showbar who died after taking shots of cherry-flavored vodka at the club.
"The family is in fact — and the legal institution is — pretty much kneecapped as far as what can happen," said Don Murray, head of Florida's chapter of the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Now, apparently, you can legally drink until you're dead."
Murray and others have lobbied the Legislature for changes in the state's laws that would shift more responsibility to bars and bartenders for ensuring that patrons don't drink dangerously. So far, it's been a losing battle, he says, mainly because "Florida is the state where people pay to come and party."
A study published in 2002 by the Boston University School of Public Health found that nationwide more than 1,300 Americans die annually either as the direct result of alcohol poisoning or in incidents in which alcohol overdose was considered a contributing factor. The most current state statistics available show that from 2004 to 2006, accidental alcohol poisoning killed only one person in Hillsborough County.
Nevada and Vermont are the other states that do not impose liability on a bartender or a bar, said Stetson University College of Law professor Tim Kaye.
"Florida has taken the view that the duty is really on the drinker," he said.
The only restriction on bartenders in state law says bars must not serve someone who is habitually addicted to alcohol, he said.
Morris' sister has said he was a social drinker who sipped beer.
It was just after 5 p.m. Tuesday when Morris started taking shots at the bar off U.S. 92 after a friend challenged him to a drinking contest.
The bartender cut him off somewhere after 23 shots. Morris collapsed in the bar's champagne room and died at Brandon Regional Hospital.
His family members declined to comment about whether they plan to pursue a legal case, and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office says it's still investigating the matter. Prosecutors declined to comment, and an autopsy report is not yet available.
Sheriff's officials have said that bars do not have a legal restriction on how much alcohol they can serve to customers. The agency has a voluntary program to teach safe serving practices, but sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said it was unclear whether Angels Showbar took part.
State officials, too, said there was little chance the bar would face repercussions.
"There are no regulations within our jurisdiction that pertain to the tragic incident at Angels Showbar," said Alexis Antonacci, spokeswoman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco falls within that department.
Antonacci said bars face consequences for underage drinking, for not paying taxes and for obtaining alcohol from someplace other than a distributor, but not for something like Morris' death.
Angels Showbar has been investigated five times in 2007 and 2008, Antonacci said. The bar's license was suspended from Jan. 25 to Jan. 28 for a "B-girl" violation, which means that female employees of the bar solicited patrons to purchase alcoholic drinks for them. The club also was fined $1,000. Four of the five investigations centered on similar complaints.
The most recent complaint was that the bar refilled liquor bottles with something other than what was printed on the label. On April 16, a state agent visited the bar and did not see any evidence to support that complaint, records show.
The news of Morris' death shocked other local bars.
At the Dubliner, a Hyde Park pub, employees participate in a program that deals with legal issues that surround serving alcohol, said owner Richard Campion. It's not required by the state, but it helps reduce insurance rates and protects the business' license, he said.
He couldn't believe any bar would serve a patron more than 20 shots of vodka.
"It's just odd to me that something like that could happen," he said.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3373.