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Paul Zimmerman
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UPDATE: Bill Requiring Mandatory Training for Alcohol Servers Vetoed by Governor Brown

Update (9.30.16): California Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed AB 2121, a bill that would have required bartenders to complete a course to help them identify customers who may be intoxicated and to intervene. Under the bill, establishments that serve alcoholic beverages would have had to certify that their employees have completed the training when they apply for a license through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).

In a veto message released in conjunction with the veto, Governor Brown notes "The goal of the program is to teach alcohol servers how to recognize who has consumed too much alcohol by using courses approved by the American National Standards Institute, a for-profit accrediting body. I would prefer to have the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control determine the steps needed to beef up our training programs where necessary."

M&R will closely watch this issue, and report further should the California legislature attempt to revive the bill.

Originally Published March 15, 2016:

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, has proposed a bill that would require alcohol servers to complete a course to help them identify customers who may be intoxicated and to intervene. Under the bill, establishments that serve alcoholic beverages would have to certify that their employees have completed the training when they apply for a license through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Eighteen states (and the District of Columbia) already require servers to complete alcohol training courses, but in California, where civil liability for bar owners and alcohol servers is currently very limited, the implications of this legislation could be significant.

For the past 25 years, the California ABC has offered a free and voluntary 4-hour class, called Licensee Education on Alcohol and Drugs, or LEAD, for restaurant and bar workers that offers training on how to detect illegal activity, instruction on how to properly verify forms of identification, and general education on reducing potential liability associated with the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The ABC has encouraged its licensees to participate in these classes as a means to minimize the risk of liability for criminal, civil and ABC regulatory actions, to potentially lower liability insurance premiums, and to develop strategies for addressing challenging situations associated with the sale of alcohol.

The new bill (AB 2121), which will be considered by the Assembly on April 1, 2016, would make ABC- administered training mandatory statewide for anyone serving alcoholic beverages; notably, this training would be more advanced than the voluntary LEAD training. The new requirement is being touted as a move to cut down on the deadly toll from drunk driving. Assemblywoman Gonzalez said her measure was a reaction to the deaths of two UC San Diego medical students killed in May 2015 by a wrong-way drunken driver.

The legislation includes the proposed enactment of the Responsible Intervention of Beverage Servers Act of 2016 (RIBS).  Although the content for RIBS has not been fully disclosed at this stage, if enacted, RIBS would be a required 4-hour course, taken by all licensee employees, and would cover such in-depth topics as: the social impact of alcohol; the impact of alcohol on the body; laws and regulations relating to the service and sale of alcoholic beverages; and the development of management policies that support the prevention of sale or service of alcoholic beverages to underage persons or intoxicated persons. The requirement would take effect in July 2020. It would give workers three months to complete an approved course, which they would have to repeat every three years.

While the motivation for the legislation is founded upon a noble goal, it does present questions that should give licensees pause.  First, the legislation contemplates that the costs of enrolling in RIBS will be borne by the licensee, and not the government, on the constitutional rationale that the legislation proposes new liability to the licensee for failure to comply.  Second, the legislation does not seem to address the potential for increased civil liability exposure for bars and lounges for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person.  These so-called “Dram Shop” laws (derived from England, where a bar or tavern sold alcohol by the dram, one-sixteenth of an ounce) establish liability against a bar, restaurant, hotel, liquor store any other business for selling or serving too much alcohol to a person that causes injury to and individual(s).  In California, the law ascribes causation for bodily injury to the actual consumption of alcohol, and not from serving or selling the alcohol, and thus civil liability is very limited.  However, if AB 2121 passes, and bartenders and waitresses are trained to develop a more in-depth understanding of the impacts of alcohol, licensees may ultimately be held to a different standard of care, thus exposing owners to potential civil liability.

With or without AB 2121, on-line courses are available to bartenders and servers that, for a nominal fee, provide practical tips and training on legal responsibilities, potential effects of alcohol, and how to deal with specific situations involving intoxicated patrons. Bar and restaurant owners and operators would do well to ensure that their staff are aware of best practices. Moreover, licensees of the California ABC should pay close attention to this issue as the bill is debated in Sacramento; the RIBS Act potentially represents a major shift in how risk and causation are determined in civil actions arising from over-consumption of alcohol. 

This article is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.