Aramark is in big trouble

Earlier in the week the Astros blamed Aramark for their no-outside-food policy. They may not have Aramark to kick around for much longer:

The company that sells alcoholic beverages at Minute Maid Park could lose one of its state licenses at the stadium because of an incident last summer in which an allegedly drunken driver leaving an Astros game hit and killed a pedestrian.

Catering giant Aramark, which holds the ballpark’s concessions contract, faces an administrative hearing because of allegations that it sold or delivered alcohol to an intoxicated person, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Cancellation of the permit is the standard penalty for a case this severe, said TABC Capt. Rick Cruz. A date for the hearing has not been set.

The background to this is truly awful. The allegedly drunken driver is actually an Aramark employee who was off duty but at the ballpark to watch an Astros game. It’s claimed he was given free drinks before running down and killing a Texas Department of Transportation employee who was working on a downtown street.

For anyone who cares about this stuff, Aramark is potentially on the hook for more than their ballpark liquor license. They haven’t been named in the pending civil suit yet, but you’d have to imagine that they will be, and that they face some serious potential liability. Indeed, Aramark itself was on the wrong end of the largest ever award arising out of someone being overserved at a sporting event, when a New Jersey jury slapped them with a $105 million verdict for selling beer to a drunken football fan who later caused an auto accident, leaving a 2 year-old girl named Antonia Verni paralyzed. I followed that case for a time a couple of years ago and have since lost track of it, but my understanding was that the damages award was overturned (though liability was not) and then the case subsequently settled.

I enjoy a beer at the ballpark, and I often make jokes about just how many I enjoy, but in light of Jim Leyrtiz, Nick Adenhart, and now this case, it’s worth remembering just how important it is to drink responsibly, folks.

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  1. Richard in Dallas said...

    It’s always awful when a terrible thing happens because of too much of a good thing.  I feel for the family of the victim.

    Maybe, just maybe, this is the Karma train coming back around on the Astro’s an Aramark for their “No Outside Food” policy, which makes it very hard for families to enjoy a trip to the park.  It’s my understanding that they are the ONLY Major League team to not allow folks to import their own grub, in an effort to preserve their monopoly on $5 hot dogs and $6 sodas.  The loss of beer revenue will certainly cost them more than they would have lost in allowing people to bring a cheaper (and healthier) meal or snack to a game.  Too bad, because you know that now there is no chance of them loosening that policy, and, in fact, they will probably raise prices to help them compensate……

  2. Ron said...

    The Astros and the fans at Minute Maid aren’t going to lose out on anything.

    Part of the contract with Aramak is that they sell alcohol. If they lose their license, the agreement can be terminated. The Astros, or more specifically, whoever holds the lease at the park (I don’t know who) will bring in another vendor with a license to sell.

    Too much tax money would be lost.

    Aramak is a service provider. They go away, someone else will provide the service.

    I’m more experienced with the Washington state laws than the Texas ones, but they have to be similar. Whoever holds the lease is responsible for controlling the alcohol, but they don’t actually hold the license.

    If someone knows something different, please let me know, as I’m a couple of years out of date.

  3. Ron said...

    As an example, in Kansas City, the county owns the stadium and leases it out. The alcohol license goes through the county and not the Royals.

  4. Sara K said...

    Aramark provides the “official” food for the university I work for, and I know from direct experience that they prefer total dominion to all other possible arrangements.  The students who buy their ridiculously overpriced meal plans would be amazed to learn that Aramark gave away free anything to anybody, though we would all agree that anything contributing to an avoidable death is beyond regrettable. 

    I guess the philosophical legal question is whether repsonsibility lies on the individual who consumed the drinks or the individual who served the drinks or the corporation who hired the individual who served the drinks. Who does the law target, CC?

  5. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Different laws target different people. General laws of liability, both criminal and civil, target the individual, in this case the driver. Just like Leyritz and Adenhart and everything else: person who causes accident is responsible.

    But others can be responsible too, both jointly for basic negligence, or under other specialized legal theories.  The operative laws here are commonly referred to as “dram shop laws,” which establish the liability of bars, restaurants, etc. for selling alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons or minors who subsequently cause death or injury to third-parties.  They’re old laws—originally the fruit of the temperance movement of the 19th century, but revived in strength in the 1980s by MADD and the like.

    Enforcement is rather spotty, but yes, Aramark in this case—who I assume would fill the role the bar or restaurant usually fills—can be held liable if they knowingly served an intoxicated person. You may guess that there is a slight chicken/egg problem here: did we make the guy drunk, or was he drunk already and we made him drunker. That’s always a matter of testimony and factual inquiry at trial—witnesses who say the guy was loaded when as he continued to be served, etc., staggering, slurring, yet still being given alcohol.  Generally, though, the upshot is to go after a bar who has clearly overserved someone.  It’s these same laws, by the way, that form the basis of a bar or restaurant’s decision to “cut you off, mac” when you’re drunk.  Though I’ve only seen this happen in the movies.

    The laws are controversial, because they’re often only taken advantage of in situations where the person who was drunk is either dead or poor or something, and critics say that it’s really only a means of finding a “deep pocket” from which to recover legal damages. I’m not THAT cynical about it, but these laws do sort of diminish personal responsibility in my mind.

    In this case I could see the proof breaking down like this: (a) blood alcohol level calculated to estimate how much and for how long the guy was drinking; (b) witness testimony from Aramark employees or others with the guy establishing that he was drinking from the Aramark stand up until very near the time he left the ballpark; (c) testimony or evidence that he wasn’t being charged for drinks, which would establish that no one was really monitoring this guy’s intake or demeanor as he was being served; and (d) general evidence as to all of the liquor laws Aramark was breaking by doing so, which would further establish their negligence.

    Hard cases to prove, but when you have BAC reading combined with some other egregious fact like the free booze or eyewitness testimony of obviously drunk behavior, it’s much easier to establish a dram shop case.

  6. Rob Moore said...

    regarding C), I applied for an Aramark job as an AV Tech some years ago, and one of the perks of the job was that food and drink from the Aramark-run cafeteria on site was free.  This was at a bank, not somewhere that served alcohol, but I’m guessing that perk is widely offered.  So him getting free drinks does not surprise me at all.

  7. Sara K said...

    Hmm.  Any riff on the seeming absence of responsiblilty for an individual employee? There must be rogue employees out there, right? Not that I’d mind Aramark being taken down in flames, but how can corporate be taken down if one person flouted the rules?

  8. Craig Calcaterra said...

    I think some combination of cynicism and experience caused me to overlook that.  Yes, the individual employee doing the serving can be held liable, and in all likelihood would be named in a suit too.  But generally speaking, employers are liable for the acts of their employees committed within the scope of their employment (there could be a fight over whether giving out comps to the guy in this case was “in the scope of employment” but in a typical dram shop case, it’s likely going to held to be so).

    Also generally speaking, the employee has no money, so while they are sued by name, plaintiffs will usually not pursue recovery/collection from them, and may very well settle with them early to ensure their cooperation in going after the better-funded employer.

  9. Ron said...

    When I worked in the Seattle area for different venues where Aramak was at, eveyone (except the security guys) got a voucher for a meal at work. But it was specifically forbidden for anyone on duty to be drinking, and the vouchers didn’t include alcohol.

    I’ll willing to let some buddies let him slide.

  10. Jake said...

    personal responsibility gone on holiday.

    Aramark didn’t drink.  Aramark didn’t drive.

    let’s point the fingers at the actual idiots, shall we?

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