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Alcohol vendors who serve drunks targeted

Clearwater lawyer Tom Carey, an activist who works to curb drunken driving, thinks it should be easier to sue bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to somebody who is drunk.

Rep. Johnnie Byrd Jr., R-Plant City, has introduced a bill that would accomplish just that. The bill would not affect homeowners or party hosts unless they have a state beverage license.

But the measure faces serious trouble in a conservative, business-oriented Legislature that is more inclined to limit civil lawsuits than establish new causes of action.

Currently, civil suits against those who sell alcoholic beverages to someone who subsequently gets involved in a drunken driving accident are prohibited.

The state can take action against a bar or restaurant that serves a visibly drunken person only when the bar has received written notice from a family member that the person is addicted to alcohol, a standard that is all but impossible to meet.

"We're talking about saving Florida families," said Paul Jeske, lobbyist for the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers. "A person who is intoxicated is primarily responsible for damage to others, but where vendors can see the person is intoxicated, the bar owner should be liable."

Jeske said the Responsible Vendor Act, passed in 1979, was supposed to make it harder for visibly drunken patrons to be served. Liquor lobbyists said that law is adequate.

But Carey, saying he was testifying on behalf of the 25,000 Floridians killed since the Responsible Vendor Act was passed, urged the committee to "strip the cloak of immunity" that surrounds those who sell alcohol.

Carey called the current law a farce because it immunizes vendors from liability and has not resulted in any action against a vendor.

The new bill was overwhelmingly condemned by restaurant and liquor lobbyists who said it would drive up insurance costs and it would be a nightmare to prove that someone was visibly intoxicated.