Bill allows suits for giving kids booze

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

Adults who knowingly provide alcohol to minors would be held liable for civil damages under a bill that is making its way through the Legislature.

Civil damages include those relating to personal injury, death, or damage to property.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican who sponsored House Bill 281, emphasized that alcoholic beverages would have to be "knowingly" provided for the statute to apply.

"We are not going after the kid that sneaks a glass of champagne at the wedding reception or the parents that want to give their kid a glass of wine at dinner," Meyer said.

The measure targets adults who go to liquor stores and buy alcohol for minors, he said.

He alluded to a situation last July in Anchorage in which alcohol purchased by adults for teen-agers resulted in the deaths of four people. After a late-night party, 19-year-old Robert Esper, under suspicion of driving drunk, evaded Anchorage police for more than half an hour before his speeding vehicle crossed the median on the Glenn Highway and collided head-on with a police car.

Esper and two teen-age passengers were killed along with Anchorage police officer Justin Todd Wollam.

"Certainly this bill won't bring back the lives of those three

teen-agers or officer Wollam," Meyer said. "But it will provide a recourse for the victims' families, and it will send a strong message to adults that we are serious about reducing underage access to alcohol."

Cindy Cashen spoke on behalf of the Juneau chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in support of the bill.

"MADD's mission includes the prevention of underage drinking, and this bill will assist in decreasing the availability of alcohol to minors," she said.

Cashen has lobbied the Legislature for alcohol-related initiatives such as the "dime a drink" alcohol excise tax and the recently passed 0.08 blood-content level for drunken driving.

HB 281 would hold the general public to the same standard that is expected now of licensees such as liquor stores and bars. Current law states that such establishments are subject to civil lawsuits for damages incurred as a result of underage or otherwise unlawful liquor sales.

Cashen, whose father was killed by a drunk driver, used her own loss as an example of why civil penalties should apply to adults who provide liquor to minors.

"The man who killed my father purchased alcohol at a liquor store, but he was impaired (by drinking) while he did so, and my mother is able to file a civil suit against him," she said. "The people who have lost loved ones because someone supplied them illegally with alcohol should be able to do the same."

Pam Watts, executive director of the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said research indicates that underage drinking is linked with increased "risk-taking and sensation-seeking."

Twenty-one percent of deaths of drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 in 1997 were a result of intoxicated minors behind the wheel, she said. Watts also added that underage drinking is a contributing factor to a host of social problems such as teen suicide, sexual activity at an early age and alcoholism.

"The bottom line for this piece of legislation is that those adults who provide alcohol to underage drinkers assume a heavy responsibility," she said. "And this legislation makes it clear what that responsibility is and the consequences associated with it."

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the House earlier this month, was successfully passed out of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Thursday.

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