Linda Cousins lost her teenage daughter 20 years ago in a one-car crash after a bartender served her alcohol without ever asking for her ID and then she decided to drive home. Today, Cousins is continuing her crusade to prevent other families from experiencing the same tragedy.
“Alli was my only child,” Cousins, of Greenville, told state senators Thursday. “S. 342 is a bill that could become a life-saving law.”
Piggy backing on an effort to close holes in South Carolina’s drunk-driving laws and crack down on first-time offenders, lawmakers now are turning their gaze to those who over-serve.
S.C. bartenders, waitresses and others who serve alcohol would be required to attend mandatory training and receive a state permit under a bill advanced Thursday by a panel of lawmakers. Those caught serving someone underage or who is intoxicated could face hundreds of dollars in fines and the suspension of their server permit.
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Some Columbia bar and restaurant owners and servers say they support the effort, noting they already provide similar training to their employees as a way to cut down on their insurance liability. However, others expressed concern about the cost businesses could incur for that training.
The bill by state Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, would mandate training and permitting for anyone who mixes, serves or sells alcohol for on-premises consumption. Managers who supervise these employees also would be required to have a service permit.
The state’s more than 42,000 bartenders and wait staff would be impacted by the new licensing requirements, which would not be enforced until a year after the bill is signed into law. The lawmakers introduced “Alli’s Law” in memory of Alli Cousins, the high-school senior who died in a car crash after she was served multiple drinks at an Upstate bar.
More than 20 states require alcohol server training, according to the National Restaurant Association. And studies of laws in those states have shown reduced sales to underage people and fewer drunk-driving deaths, Cousins said.
Training and certificate programs are currently available, including through Anheuser-Busch and the National Restaurant Association, but are voluntary in the state, except for servers working in breweries. Training only becomes mandatory after a business is cited for violations.
Sens. Rankin and Hutto introduced similar legislation in 2017 that passed the Senate but died in the House.
Serving alcohol is a privilege, and those serving should be educated on how to do so responsibly, Rankin told The State.
“It puts everyone on a level playing” and helps ensure a few bad apples don’t put a “taint on everyone in that business,” he said. “Unlike a buffet, where folks come and eat all they want, alcohol is a regulated industry in this state, where the server (and) owner (have) a higher duty to keep a watchful eye that someone doesn’t get served if they’re already intoxicated.”
The bill has the backing of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, which represents 1,400 members, as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“It’s really designed ... to assist servers ... which will have the effect, hopefully, on minimizing the possibility of over-serving and the consequences that come from that,” for them, the public and the business, said John Durst, president and chief executive of the restaurant association.
More than 1,000 people die on S.C. roads each year, and a third of those deaths are caused by drunk drivers, The State reported in February. According to 2016 data, only Montana drivers were more likely to die in a drunk-driving wreck than S.C. drivers, The State found.
Servers would face jail, fines
The training — which could be conducted online or in person — would teach servers and managers, in part, how to check IDs for age, recognize signs of intoxication, prevent customers from being over-served and methods for managing “problem drinkers.”
A state law enacted in 2017 aimed to hold restaurants, bars, taverns and other establishments liable for selling or serving alcohol to individuals who cause injuries or death as a result of their intoxication. Any such establishment which serves liquor after 5 p.m. is required to carry a $1 million liability insurance policy to cover injuries and damages caused by patrons who became intoxicated at the establishment.
That would not change under the bill, Hutto and Rankin said.
However, anyone who serves someone in violation of state alcohol regulations would face a $200 to $300 fine or up to 30 days in jail, or both. And would also have their alcohol server certificate suspended for up to 30 days. A second offense carries a $400 to $500 fine or 30 days and jail, and would have their server certificate suspended for six months to a year.
Hutto said the bill is not meant to shift liability onto servers, but to create a deterrent to bad behavior that rewards servers in additional tips.
“Servers aren’t walking around with big insurance policies, other than those attached to their employer,” he said. “But a lot of them are working for the tips, and we all know that. They’re going to do better the more they serve, but that doesn’t benefit the customer or the establishment or the public.”
Training ‘should be free,’ restaurant owner says
Some Columbia bar and restaurant owners and servers say mandatory education and training would help elevate the industry and deter similar tragedies in the future.
“I think anything that can consistently do that improves safety and is a positive,” said Bob McCarthy, co-owner of Publico Kitchen and Tap in Five Points. McCarthy has worked in the food and beverage industry for roughly 40 years.
“We don’t leave it up to chance,” McCarthy said of providing training to employees on checking IDs and monitoring patrons so they don’t become intoxicated. “We’re there to do business and be a positive part of the community. It’s short-sighted to skirt the issues and law to make a quick dollar.”
The course would be at least four hours long and conclude with a test, which one must pass to receive an alcohol server certificate that would be good for five years.
Bartenders, servers and managers would have 60 days from their date of hire to obtain their alcohol server permit.
All of whom would pay no more than $50 for the training and $15 for a permit.
Rankin said he expected business would cover the cost for training and permits, as many do now voluntarily.
Publico bartender Jacob Alvarez, 26, has been serving drinks for the last four years, and received a certificate for completing the National Restaurant Association’s alcohol training program. Additionally, Publico provides its own in-house training to employees on bests practices for how to responsibly serve alcohol.
“In the end of the day, we’re the ones serving them alcohol,” Alvarez said. “It’s our jobs not to overly intoxicate them, because we’re not the ones driving them home. ... If it can help somebody underage not get into an accident or in a fight or stay out of legal issues, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Duncan MacRae, who co-owns Yesterdays Restaurant and Tavern in Five Points, said the course is a good idea.
“You get these fly-by-nighters that might learn something,” MacRae said of businesses catering to underage college student looking to make money. “I think it would be good for the public and good for insurance rates.”
MacRae, however, said the class should be offered at no-cost to businesses and servers.
“In the past, the businesses has paid for training, which typically cost about $25 to $35 a person,” MacRae said. “But if the government is going to mandate it, it should be free. We have too many rules we have to pay for already.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
“It’s going to put the onus on (servers and bartenders) to do their job and not serve their underage friends,” MacRae said.