Bar pays alcoholic worker in booze. Worker gets drunk, falls, hits head, dies. Appellate Court says no independent cause of action against bar.

The First District Appellate court recently faced a novel question – what liability does a bar face when it provides free alcohol to someone who then falls, hits his head and dies?

The case – Schramm v. 3258 Wells Street Restaurant – involved some unusual facts. Michael Schramm[“Michael”] worked as a busser at 3258 S. Wells, also known as Turtle’s Bar. Schramm delivered drinks, cleaned tables and washed dishes. Turtles paid him in cash and also gave him free alcoholic drinks while he worked. The bar owner – Thomas Mancine[“Mancine”]was well aware that Michael had a severe drinking problem.

On September 28, 2021 Turtles employees were giving Michael free drinks while he worked. Michael became severely intoxicated. He then fell, hit his head and lost consciousness. According to the complaint filed on Michael’s behalf, his blood alcohol level was 3 times the legal limit when he fell. Michael was taken to a hospital where he was declared brain dead. He then died on October 2, 2021.

Shortly before his fall, Michael had been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after working a shift at Turtle’s. James[“James”] Schramm, Michaels’ brother, alleged that he had confronted Mancine numerous times regarding Michael’s alcoholism. James further alleged in the complaint that Mancine had acknowledged Michael’s drinking problem and promised to stop providing Michael with alcohol during his shifts. Nonetheless, Mancine and other Turtle’s employees continued to provide Michael with alcohol, despite the promise not to do so.

In the complaint filed on behalf of Michael, James alleged that the bar had undertaken a duty to refrain from giving Michael alcohol, had breached that duty and also failed to render timely medical care after Michael fell. James did NOT allege any theories under the Illinois Dram Shop Act 235 ILCS 5/1-1 – which is the exclusive remedy for injuries caused as a result of a person becoming intoxicated at a bar.

The defendants(Mancine and Turtle’s) moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that James was attempting to to circumvent the Dram Shop Act. The trial judge granted the motion, noting that the basis of James’ complaint was that Turtle’s had caused Michael’s intoxication – and the only available remedy was the Dram Shop Act.

James then appealed the dismissal. His argument to the Appellate Court – which was compelling – was that he wasn’t seeking recovery because the bar gave Michael booze. Instead, he was arguing that Mancine had undertaken a specific duty to refrain from providing Michael with alcohol and that Mancine and his employees failed to promptly render aid after Michael fell and hit his head.

Unfortunately for James, the Appellate Court did not find his argument persuasive. First, the Court reaffirmed that the Dram Shop Act was the only recovery that might be obtained against a bar when injuries occur due to the consumption of alcohol. Then the Court shot down the “voluntary undertaking” theory. The Court ruled that Mancine had merely promised not to give Michael free alcohol and hadn’t really taken “control” of Michael which the Court felt was necessary based on other cases. Curiously the Appellate Court opinion does not really address the allegation that the defendants failed to render prompt aid after the fall.

As noted above, the facts in this case were compelling. Mancine knew that Michael was a problem drinker. And promised family members that he would stop providing free alcohol to Michael. But he didn’t stop. The free drinks kept flowing, and predictably the problem drinker had too much, fell, hit his head and died. Illinois courts continue to be reluctant to recognize independent causes of actions against bars separate and apart from the meager recovery provisions of the Dram Shop Act. While the rationale behind the Dram Shop Act makes good sense, there are cases, like Michael Schramm’s where the cause of his death was not simply the free drinks. Mancine and Turtle’s employees knew Michael had a problem, promised to stop indulging that problem and then broke that promise – with tragic consequences.

Schramm was represented by Deutschman & Skafish.