Government

Iowa Senate sends 'dram shop' law changes to governor

Bill reduces liability for bars and restaurants

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Legislation to reduce the legal and financial liabilities of bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to individuals who later become involved in vehicle crashes is on its way to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk.

Senators voted 32-17 Wednesday to accept changes made by the Iowa House to Senate File 2169, a bill that would limit “dram shop” liability for business establishments accused of over-serving a drunk customer. Lawmakers from both parties found reasons to criticize those House modifications, but for different reasons.

Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said representatives took a good Senate bill and “just simply gutted it.”

House members voted to let juries award an unlimited amount of money for “substantial or permanent” damages from a drunken-driving accident, such as the victim’s death or significant medical bills. Otherwise, “non-economic” damages when bars or restaurants are accused of over-serving a customer would be limited to $250,000.

The Senate version contained provisions in cases where an intoxicated patron’s action resulted in injury to a person or property, the judgment or recovery would be limited to $75,000 for each person injured. That would be increased to $100,000 per person for claims involving loss of support or services, companionship, society or consortium resulting from the death or injury of a person.

In the opinion of Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, the House change made it “a less-bad bill,” but he rejected to the bill overall.

“The bottom line here quite simply is we’re going soft on drunk driving,” Quirmbach said. “I think that it is appropriate to have incentives for those who serve alcohol and those who profit from the sale to take responsibility for limiting the intake so as not to contribute to situations of danger on the public highways.”

Representatives from various hospitality industry associations supported the measure as a way to help control spiraling liability insurance costs. Trial lawyers, victim advocates and others said the cap on damages would reduce protections and impede preventive efforts to keep impaired drivers off the roadways.

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said state officials should investigate why dram shop insurance rates in Iowa were higher than some surrounding states but capping liability for victims was not the way to address that issue.

“This bill says we should find ways to limit the responsibility of an establishment that overserves. It’s the wrong message, it’s the wrong approach,” Boulton argued. “This bill does nothing to actually prevent impaired drivers from injuring people on our road.”

SUPERVISOR DISTRICTS

In other action, the Senate voted 26-20 to approve a House-passed bill that would change redistricting process for some county boards of supervisors in Iowa. House File 2372 now heads to the governor.

Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said the bill would create a more equitable system and fairer representation, but Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, countered that the bill attempted to address “a phony issue” because a problem doesn’t exist and would discriminate against larger Iowa counties.

The bill requires any county with a population of more than 60,000 people to use a plan that requires residents to choose a candidate who also lives in the district, with districts based on population.

The bill also amends the process by which those district maps are drawn, removing the power from a board-appointed commission and instead handing it over to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which draws maps for legislative and congressional districts.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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