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Saturday, March 1, 2008

When does personal responsibility end?

Today, I've got an interesting question. On the right, you tend to hear a lot about the virtue of personal responsibility. We stress it and emphasize it to seemingly no end. But at what point, if any, does personal responsibility end?

The parents of Amanda Jax have filed a lawsuit against a nightclub Jax attended and the friends accompanying her. Amanda died after a drinking binge to celebrate her 21st birthday, and her parents are alleging that the nightclub should have stopped serving her when she was obviously intoxicated, and that her friends should have stepped in, as well.
The family of a woman who drank herself to death at a Mankato nightspot while celebrating her 21st birthday is suing not only the establishment but also the friends who bought her a steady stream of drinks.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Blue Earth County District Court, alleges that on Oct. 29 the college-age friends of Amanda Jax bought her one drink after another in less than two hours.

As a result, Jax's parents are taking the unusual legal step of suing her companions, in a case that could set a precedent as to who can be held legally liable when someone drinks too much.

"It's evolutionary," said Prof. Barry Feld of the University of Minnesota Law School, who used the scenario as a question on a final exam last semester. "It's pushing the edges of legal liability. These kinds of cases are the engines that drive social change."

That desire for change -- along with holding people responsible for their daughter's death -- is what is driving the lawsuit, Jax's parents said Thursday.

Jax, the suit contends, "was in the care" of the friends who gave alcohol to "an obviously intoxicated person." Their actions, the suit argues, "created an unreasonable risk of causing physical harm" to Jax, and the friends "failed to exercise reasonable care" in preventing harm to her.

"I don't know how they could have called themselves friends and not done anything," said a tearful Jenny Haag, Jax's mother. "They helped her drink even when she wanted to quit. If people had called 911 [in time], then Amanda's death could have been avoided."

At the apartment where Jax died, the suit says, an intoxicated Jax was tended to by two of the defendants about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 30, when she had "been unconscious for approximately one hour and had vomited twice. No one sought medical help for the dying Amanda." A 911 call was made from the apartment about 7 a.m., police records show, after a friend discovered Jax's cold body.

Amanda weighed around 100 lbs, and at the time of her death, her blood alcohol level was 0.4594 percent, almost 6 times the legal limit.

How much did Amanda drink? According to the lawsuit, she had:
... one or two cans of beer at an apartment before going to Sidelines; a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea (equal to 12.5 shots of hard liquor); five shots of hard alcohol; two beers; and the cherry vodka-energy drink concoction.

Obviously, the suit alleges that every drink was bought for her. However, it was Amanda's 21st birthday, when your friends are practically expected to buy and feed you drinks all night long.

In any case, what's the verdict here? At what point does it stop being a matter of personal responsibility?

Let me start by saying that I absolutely think her friends should have recognized when she had too much to drink. They absolutely should have recognized when she had enough, and stepped in to put an end to it. But should they be held legally accountable for not doing so?

Here's my problem with that. Amanda knew what she was getting into. She drank every drink willingly; no one held her down, opened her mouth, and poured the drinks down her throat. The thing about drinking, and especially about binge drinking, is that we all know what the risks are. Kids start getting drug education (Just Say No!) in as early as elementary school. (In mine, it was a program called DARE: Drug Abuse Resistance Education.) It usually continues on through high school, teaching the effects and risks of everything from cigarettes and alcohol to cocaine and heroin. The effects of drinking too much are almost as commonly known as the risks of smoking. The problem is, almost everyone my age admittedly has Superman Syndrome when it comes to drinking. We all hear horror stories like Amanda's, but no one ever thinks it will actually happen to them. I highly doubt that Amanda had never consumed alcohol before, and frankly, that she'd never been drunk before.

That said, I can't help but think that when one decides to go on a drinking binge, for whatever reason, they know what they're getting into. You know the risks when you take the first drink. Her friends should have been looking out for her, but I can't see how they can be legally held accountable.

The nightclub, however, is a different story. When an establishment, whether a restaurant, bar, or nightclub, gets a liquor license one of the stipulations is that you cannot continue to serve someone who is obviously intoxicated. If Amanda did not appear to be completely drunk out of her mind when the bartender bought her the final drink, a shot called a Cherry Bomb, then he can't technically be held responsible. But if she was falling off her barstool, slurring her speech, etc., and he still served her, then he can be held responsible and the nightclub can lose their liquor license, which has apparently already been suspended for thirty days.

I'm no judge, and I'm not a lawyer, so my legal expertise here is obviously lacking. But I can't help but think that while you might be able to make a case against the nightclub, holding her friends responsible as well is taking it a little far. Yes, they bought her drinks on her 21st birthday. They didn't, though, force her to drink. Amanda made the decision to drink herself to death. Her friends should have been more attentive, but ultimately, even with the bartender serving her past the point of obvious inebriation, the fault is her own. We can point fingers all day long, but at the end of the day, it was her decision. That may make it harder for her parents to cope with her death, but it's the truth. Her friends should have been looking out for her, but they weren't her babysitters. She was 21 years old, and old enough to make her own decisions. When you cut everything else away, it was ultimately Amanda's decision that led to tragedy -- and what happened was a tragedy. But I couldn't honestly say that others can really be held responsible in a court of law for Amanda's inability and/or unwillingness to say enough.

You can only hold others' responsible for your actions for so long. Eventually, you have to own up to your decisions, no matter how tragic the consequences.

UPDATE: I just re-read the article and apparently, Amanda Jax had not one but two DUIs prior to turning 21. This only makes me feel that she was personally responsible for her own tragic death even more.

Hat Tip: Ed at Hot Air


Gredd said...

Gonna play devil's advocate a bit.

It's interesting that the girl is blamed in her own death, but had she jumped into bed with some guy, HE would have been blamed?

Anonymous said...

Just a thought here. While incredibly tragic, finding the friends and bar owner at fault for not stepping in, is no more likely then finding the parents at fault for not ensuring she knew the consequences of her over indulgent actions. We can make this circle as large as we like, but the responsibility for ones actions rest with that person. If she had driven to the bar, who would have been expected to wrestle the keys from her? And in the event she got bruised up in the process, who'd have been sued then? Yes, youth certainly operates under the assumption that they are indestructible, as parents, we need to constantly remind them; 1. They are not, and 2. When they find they're not as result of their own actions, others are not responsible. This seems to be the lesson the parents didn't learn themselves. Having said that, grief makes us do irrational things.

Steve said...

Cassy, what if one of her less intoxicated friends bought the drinks, such that the bartender never saw the girl? Do you still think he bares any responsibility? How is he supposed to know when she has had "too much?"

Different people react to alcohol differently. My wife, for instance is Taiwanese, and like most Asians, has very low tolerance for alcohol - one sip is enough to make her face turn bright red. After two sips, her eyes get glassy. I doubt her BAC is above the legal limit at that point, but she clearly appears intoxicated. Should the bartender and/or waitress be legally obligated to take away her drink at that point? Or are you suggesting that she just not be served any more? What if, after those two sips, she takes a third and then slips and falls on the floor of the establishment. Is the bartender now responsible for her accident since he didn't take the drink away?

Holding other people "responsible" for one's actions just invites governmental regulation.

The lawsuit is a perfect example of the injury lawyer using what is called the "deep pockets" theory. This practice says that you sue everyone involved in an accident, no matter how tangentially, in order of increasing wealth. The goal is to get a payoff at each step, which adds impetus for the next person in the chain also to settle.

Anonymous said...

im doing a project on this ... does anyone know of any ways to get specific information about the case? please contact if you do.