ST. LOUIS — The recent drunken driving death of Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock has raised questions about who is responsible when someone drinks too much.
But experts say a Missouri law that is difficult to enforce leaves it up to bartenders and waiters to make a judgment call with life-and-death implications.
State law forbids serving alcohol to anyone who’s intoxicated or appears to be. But it offers no guidance on how to visibly distinguish intoxication.
Missouri is one of 33 states that doesn’t require its bartenders and servers to undergo special training.
“It’s like walking a tightrope,” said Lisa Keller, an instructor at the St. Louis Bartending Institute. “It is hard and can be unpleasant.”
Hancock’s blood-alcohol content was 0.157 percent, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08, when he died early April 29. Hancock was seen drinking at Mike Shannon’s restaurant near Busch Stadium shortly before the accident. A manager says she offered to find Hancock a ride or a cab, but he declined.
Missouri law offers little guidance on what a bartender or server is expected to do.
“It’s difficult for a layperson — a customer or the staff — to articulate why they thought a person was intoxicated,” said Pete Lobdell, state supervisor for the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
While police are trained to spot drunken drivers and can turn to blood or breath alcohol
tests, bartenders and other servers in Missouri are not required to undergo special training.
Direct observation of offenses by division agents is rare. Only 36 alcohol agents patrol the state.
Bars and restaurants can lose their liquor licenses and servers can be charged with misdemeanors. Civil lawsuits are a threat, too.
In St. Louis, no criminal prosecution for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person has occurred since at least 2001.
“On any given night, I imagine there are dozens of bartenders serving to intoxicated persons,
but there is no one from liquor control to observe this,” said Jeannette Graviss, chief warrant officer in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office.
The state alcohol agency tends to react after drunken driving accidents.
In October 1998, Rams player Leonard Little ran a red light and struck another car, killing the other driver. Little had a blood-alcohol level of 0.194, well above the legal limit, which was then 0.10. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter.
State alcohol agents accused the bar where Little was drinking, AJ’s at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in downtown St. Louis, of serving him too much beer and whiskey. The state issued a written warning to the bar. Although the case was referred to city prosecutors, the bartender was never charged.
Alcohol agents will begin investigating Mike Shannon’s restaurant after Hancock’s toxicology
test and police reports are complete, Lobdell said.
Last week, about 100 people gathered at a training for volunteer bartenders for a festival next weekend.
Agent Nancy McGee warned the bartenders against serving people who slurred their words or seemed to be having trouble guiding bratwursts into their mouths.
“We laugh and joke about it, but I use these examples because we see this happen,” McGee said.