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Should restaurants, bars face stiffer penalties for overserving alcohol?

Drunk man overserved at bar
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It’s not only illegal to drink and drive, it’s illegal for restaurants and bars to overserve alcohol. If a customer drives drunk and hurts someone, the business that served them may face a fine and a suspended alcohol license. To some victim advocates, however, these penalties do not go far enough. This year a New Hampshire family is working with legislators to raise the stakes for bars and restaurants overserving alcohol.

Drunk driving tragedy inspires action

Merrimack resident Elizabeth Croke was 20 years old when she was killed by a drunk driver in 2021. The driver, Vincent Forgione, was also killed.

Forgione was drinking at the Old School Bar and Grill in Windham before he made a U-turn on the Everett Turnpike and crashed head-on into Croke’s vehicle. His blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit. According to the Liquor Commission report, Forgione was served three tall mixed drinks and a shot within 90 minutes at the Old School Bar and Grill.

The Liquor Commission fined the Old School Bar and Grill $2,500 and suspended their license for 10 days – the current maximum penalty. However, when the bar closed from November 22 to December 2, a post on Facebook implied they were simply giving the staff a break for the holidays.

This January David and Lynn Croke, the parents of Elizabeth Croke, provided emotional testimony in favor of stiffer penalties.

“They showed no remorse,” said David Croke. “The bartender fled town and she now lives in New York. They turned a family tragedy into a time of employee celebration.”

Stiffer penalties for overserving alcohol

If an alcohol licensee serves someone “who a reasonable and prudent person would know is intoxicated," and that person goes on to cause serious injury or death, the licensee faces a fine and license suspension.

HB 279, this year’s bill, would increase the maximum fine to $7,500 and the suspension period up to 30 days.

The length of the license suspension would go down if employees have completed voluntary NH Liquor Commission training within the past two years.

If a restaurant or bar has multiple offenses, their liquor license could be revoked. HB 279 also requires the restaurant or bar to post why their liquor license was suspended.

At the January public hearing David Croke told his daughter’s story and concluded with the following argument: “It is a privilege to hold a New Hampshire liquor license. No patron should be allowed to leave an establishment when he is known to have consumed that much alcohol that fast or when he shows signs of impairment.”

A burden on small bars, restaurants

Mike Somers, President and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, argued that the penalties in HB 279 go too far.

“Our concern is that this is a 300% increase in the penalty,” he testified. He said that for small bars and restaurants, a 30-day suspension would likely put them out of business.

There are other debates around how much responsibility servers have for drunk drivers. At the public hearing Somers brought-up the challenge of “pregaming,” when a patron drinks at home or another establishment before arriving at the bar or restaurant. A server is only aware of the alcoholic drinks he or she provides. On a busy night it might be hard for an overworked bartender to judge how impaired a patron may be.

Elliot Axelman, a former state representative candidate from Hooksett, submitted testimony that overserving alcohol is in fact a “victimless crime.” 

There are of course separate civil and criminal penalties for driving drunk. 

HB 279 passed the House in February and now heads to the Senate for a public hearing. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.


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