Is It Manslaughter to Serve Someone 56 Shots of Liquor?

A bar owner in Clermont-Ferrand, France, is on trial for killing a man with 56 shots of booze. But was his encouragement to beat the bar's previous record of 55 shots enough to merit manslaughter charges?

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May 12 2015, 7:00pm

Foto von feastguru_kirti via Flickr

In a case likely to set precedent—and ruffle some French feathers—a bar owner in Clermont-Ferrand, France, is on trial for killing a man with shots. Fifty-six shots of liquor, to be precise, one more than the bar's all-time record of 55 (and one less than the 57-year-old victim's living years).

It was a bar stunt gone foul, when the decedent, Renaud, decided on a whim to beat the bar record. When he set out on his ill-fated quest, he was already 14 shots deep, perhaps not a moment to undertake big life choices (e.g., divorce your wife, drive a crane, drink 42 more shots).

After Renaud's Pyrrhic victory, he was carried from the bar by his daughter and friends, according to The Local. He was soon seized by cardiac arrest, dying before he reached a hospital. The bar owner stands charged of "manslaughter by willful neglect."

The case hinges on a devil-on-the-shoulder moment, when the bar owner leaned in and whispered "only 12 to go" in Renaud's ear. Lawyers for the man's daughter, who will testify against the bar owner, say he was "incited to consume."

Just how responsible is a bar owner, legally or morally, when a customer knocks back more than is prudent? That's a question French authorities are trying to hammer out right now, as their anti-binge drinking crusade barrels on.

You may recall that France, traditionally a beacon of temperance and moderation, has been facing some downright fratty boozing among its young. In response, the government has crafted far-reaching legislation that some might call over the top. (Among its myriad harshness is a provision banning pro-booze slogans on mousepads and beer koozies.)

Packaged in a health bill that's been approved in French parliament (but is not yet law), anyone who encourages others to "drink until drunk" faces up to six months in prison and a €15,000 fine. Encouragement could be a mighty gray area, where anyone—from the guy who high fives you after a kegstand to the lady passing out free Jäger shooters—could be culpable.

In practice, dram shop cases are exceedingly hard to prove. Can you prove that a car accident was caused by booze from a specific bar or party?

In the US, cases like this can be similarly tricky. Under the delightfully named Dram Shop Laws, some form of which exist in 38 states, a server, bartender, or party host can be held responsible for any drunken harm caused by someone they serve. (California is a noted exception, limiting most liability beyond the drinker him/herself.)

In practice, dram shop cases are exceedingly hard to prove. Can you show, without a doubt, that a car accident was caused by booze from a specific bar or party (as opposed to pre-game shots or post-party road sodas)? Is it a mitigating factor that the drinker appeared to hold their liquor well? Is a host responsible even if the party was BYOB?

Occasionally a bar gets spanked, like when Massachusetts pub Milford Keg was found liable for serving a man six White Russians before a fatal DUI accident. But typically guilt is shouldered by the drinker alone.

It's an interesting question for the French courts to decide. If the bar owner is found responsible, couldn't Renaud's friends and family also shoulder some blame? At one point he downed 30 shooters in one minute. You probably don't do that without some cheering from the sidelines.

Sure, those people didn't actually sell him the shots, but it appears the bar owner's worst crime was whispering encouragement (not the booze peddling itself). Did his four words— "only 12 to go"—add up to manslaughter?