A soon as Roger Ebert suffered a scorching backlash for tweeting "Friends don't let jackasses drink and drive," Facebook shut down his page over the stream of abusive comments. So it is with keen awareness of the personal risk that I add my own two cents: neither should bartenders.
We now know many of the details of this tragedy: Jackass star Ryan Dunn, 34, and his 30-year-old stuntman, Zachary Hartwell, were killed around 2:30 a.m. Monday morning after Dunn's Porsche 911 GT3 hit a guard rail on Pennsylvania's Route 322 before careening off the road and into the woods where the car burst into flames.
Police said the speed of the vehicle might have been a factor, as evidenced by the skid marks on the road. When they arrived at the scene, the Porsche was already fully engulfed in flames.
The last shot: Dunn seen drinking prior to his fatal crash. Posted on tumblr, the photo has now been taken down.
Prior to the fatal crash, Dunn and Hartwell had spent about four hours with a small group of guy friends in a West Chester, Pa. bar, Barnaby's of America. At some point, Dunn tweeted a photo smoking and drinking.
Published reports reveal conflicting eyewitness accounts, mostly anonymous, regarding the quantities of alcohol consumed by Dunn. At least one report in TMZ tallied two beers and three "girlie" shots, whatever that means. Someone else allegedly said Dunn was "wasted."
The manager of Barnaby's, Jim O'Brien, confirmed Dunn had been drinking adding, "He didn't seem to be intoxicated at the time he left," O'Brien said. "Ryan was not a hardcore drinker, at least not when he was here."
Spoken more like a lawyer than a barkeep. I'm not really going out on a limb to say that this treasure of a local bar just outside Philadelphia, called Barnaby's of America, is currently at very high risk for getting sued.
Pennsylvania is one of those states that has a dram shop law1, named after the English dram, a small unit of whiskey or gin. Under Pennsylvania's Dram Shop law, a business or individual who gives alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person is legally responsible for any damage that person has caused. The law is most commonly invoked after car crashes, although fist-fights and vandalism can also be a trigger.
The big question remains: how much alcohol did Dunn consume that night and was he visibly intoxicated?
Who should be held responsible for this fiery crash?
Police have not ruled this crash a DUI pending toxicology reports. With such a fiery demise, it is not yet known whether blood alcohol levels can even be properly evaluated, perhaps the reason Roger Ebert has now apologized for tweeting too soon.
The more interesting part of the story now is that Pennsylvania's law doesn't require a toxicology test or even a verification of the number of drinks consumed. The legal standard is whether someone is "visibly intoxicated," showing apparent signs like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and staggering.
The eyewitness reports could now become more important than ever, determining not the spin cycle of gossip but perhaps a valid court case of who, if anyone, is legally responsible for this tragic crash.
I, for one, will withhold judgment until we hear from the bartender instead of Barnaby's manager. In the meantime, don't kill the messenger if someone else tries to explore who might share moral responsibility as well.
1 In order to maintain a cause of action in Dram Shop cases, a claimant must present evidence that is sufficient to meet the requirements of Pennsylvania's Dram Shop Act. Pennsylvania's Dram Shop Act reads as follows: "No licensee shall be liable to third persons on account of damages inflicted upon them off the licensee's premises by customers of a licensee unless the customer who inflicts the damages was sold, furnished or given liquor or malt or brewed beverages by said licensee or his agent, servant or employee when said customer was visibly intoxicated." 47 P.S. § 4-497. See Tuski v. Ivyland Café, 2004 WL 4962363 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2004).