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Bill Altering Iowa Dram Shop Laws Passes Iowa Senate

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A bill passed by the Iowa Senate would put a cap on the amount of money a restaurant or bar would be liable for in the event one of their customers causes a drunk driving accident.  Supporters of the bill say it will make owning an establishment much more affordable, but opponents say this is not the kind of legislation Iowa needs.

In Iowa, restaurants and bars that serve alcohol must purchase dram shop insurance to cover them in the event one of their patrons causes a drunk driving accident. The way Iowa law is written, both the victim, and the person who caused the crash, can sue the establishment for an unlimited amount of money.  Jessica Dunker, President and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, says because of this, premiums alone can put someone out of business.

“In small communities, particularly on the borders we're losing businesses on this issue. I have members who are paying as much as $30,000 to $40,000 a year and they only receive $150,000 in coverage,” said Dunker.

The bill would limit who could seek damages to "innocent third parties", and cap damages at $75,000 for injury and property damage and $100,000 for loss of income or companionship in the event the victim dies. That would put Iowa in line with Illinois who caps their damages at around $67,000 and $82,000 respectively.

“If we do that we would expect a significant 30-50 percent decrease in dram insurance costs” said Dunker.

Greg Franck lost his son Wade to a drunk driver in 2015. He says the bill is an assault on victims.

“It sets limitations when a victim or the victims’ families have no limitations on their loss and their grief. The number one concern of any legislation has to be protecting the public from drunk driving,” said Franck.

Franck believes the bill enables establishments to try and sell more drinks because they know they can only be sued for so much.

“It lessens their accountability and responsibility and limits what a victim can recover. Victims can face a lifetime of medical costs,” he said.

Dunker says restaurants accept their responsibility in curbing drunk driving, but also says they're the only ones who legally have to.

“80% of alcohol that is purchased and consumed is purchased and consumed someplace other than a restaurant or bar.  Restaurant and bar owners are the only group that are held responsible for the behavior of their patrons. We just need a limit; if there's something that happens, there's a limit to the amount of responsibility, financially, that we hold,” she said.

The bill wouldn't put a cap on the amount of damages a victim can seek from the person behind the wheel, however, people like Franck say often times the drunk drivers can’t make those payments even if they are ordered by the judge.