As the investigation into the horrific Dec. 14 accident that claimed the life of Kylene Holmes and gravely injured Santa Fe EMT Vanessa Carillo continues, the public will receive a detailed rundown of the actions of Holmes and injured passenger Jennifer Michelle Belvin in the hours before they collided with Carillo, at high speed, heading the wrong direction on Interstate 25.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Holmes and Belvin likely made their last stop at the Cowgirl BBQ, where receipts purportedly show they paid for one drink apiece. It also appears likely that a Cowgirl employee urged the women to call a taxi, warned them that he would alert police if they attempted to drive away, and then did so at 1:30 am.
According to police, Cowgirl representatives brought this information forward voluntarily as soon as they confirmed the facts internally. Such candor is to be commended, as is the apparent behavior and professionalism of the Cowgirl staff. You can be sure there’s a guessing game going on at the Cowgirl right now—wondering if more could have been done to prevent two probably intoxicated women from driving. Very few of us can imagine the kind of emotional wringer an incident like this unleashes on everyone who is touched by it.
Unfortunately, the guessing game at the Cowgirl also has to include questions about legal and civil liability. In New Mexico, alcohol servers and establishments can be ruled responsible for accidents and deaths—for failure to rigorously police their own patrons. As cathartic and desirable as it is for families and communities to assign blame in the wake of tragedy, this is as wrong-headed a “nanny state” law as has ever existed.
New Mexico’s training and licensing requirements for alcohol servers are entirely reasonable. There is an onus on stores and establishments that sell drugs to be as responsible as possible, to recognize signs of overindulgence in their customers, to know how to deal with intoxicated persons and to know when it’s time to alert the police.
Santa Fe has an impressive and highly capable community of service industry workers who take pride in their jobs and in caring for their customers, and in running responsible operations, as appears to be the case insofar as what we currently know of the Cowgirl’s actions.
But even the best bartenders cannot be expected to have a full command of what everyone is imbibing, who is buying drinks for whom and which patrons may not wear their drunkenness on their sleeves—especially during peak hours when the bar is four deep with eager customers.
We ask alcohol servers to receive comprehensive training and to monitor drinking and follow procedures. They do their best and, by and large, succeed. At the end of the day, however, there is no reasonable way to blame servers and establishments for the actions of their patrons. There are simply too many factors involved in the actions that lead to catastrophe. To put an onus of legal liability on servers clouds the one factor that matters most: personal accountability.
This is our great hypocrisy as Americans. The myth of rugged individuality is cut apart on the rocks of a childlike self-indulgence—a shameful trait that demands nanny laws in order to protect us from ourselves. We are blamers to the core—if we have an outstanding societal characteristic, it is our propensity to blame others for our own failures. We blame the guy in accounting; we blame the plumber; we blame the president; and, when something ugly happens and lives are destroyed in front of us, we blame everybody we can so we can feel better and the criminal justice system can maintain its own illusion of effectiveness.
We cherish the threat of liability and the game of passing the buck. In the case of liability for alcohol servers, we are holding an axe over the heads of working class people, often living close to the poverty line and saying “serve me…but not too much, or I won’t be responsible for my own actions.”
Ultimately, to maintain such a law is a standing insult to the service industry. It suggests that, without threat of legal repercussions, servers would not do their jobs to the best of their abilities. There is no evidence to support this idea as truth, however. Our servers are enmeshed in the community in a way that few others are, and it is a point of personal and professional pride to do their jobs with full responsibility. They know they are accountable for their own actions. They know that they don’t want to wake up in the morning to tragic headlines.
Holding servers liable doesn’t make them do their jobs any better, it just gives the rest of us someone to blame when no one else is left.
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