How do you rate your company’s alcohol management program?

Almost every casino in North America serves alcohol in one form or another to customers. Alcohol is an integral part of the gaming environment. It has social and economic impacts on gaming.

Even in jurisdictions where sovereignty reigns, the service of alcohol requires a liquor license, and therefore, the individual state or province’s rules, regulations and laws that prevail as a condition for that license.

The management of personnel and good alcohol management practices by staff is an important function in today’s contemporary casino, much the same as it was in decades past. Individual state case law either amplifies the existing liability picture or in some cases dilutes it, but the reality is that more and more legal claims are filed with allegations of failure to responsibly serve alcohol, failure to follow your own self-imposed standards or serving intoxicated patrons who later cause serious injury or death.

Every seasoned executive in a casino environment knows the exposure that alcohol presents, yet many ignore the basic common-sense applications of what should be done. Some lack a fundamental understanding of the risks to the enterprise for serving alcohol to an intoxicated patron. A single incident as a result of a lackluster program or failure to have a reasonable plan can cause both financial impacts and community relations problems that are hard to recover from.

Have a Plan

It is very curious that most casinos do not have a basic alcohol service plan that is all-encompassing and includes all aspects and departments that get involved in the service or potential over-service of alcohol. They will have what is required by their liquor license or state laws, yet do not have a simple, single document that addresses the service and necessary controls to manage the program.

In the event of a claim, this becomes problematic, in that several departments get involved with varying degrees, and sometimes different objectives or philosophies that are seized on by plaintiff attorneys. By the time a claim makes it to a lawsuit and trial, it appears that the casino is ill-prepared to deal with alcohol issues, appears unorganized and more importantly, projects an indifferent attitude toward the guest’s safety and well-being.

There should be a basic written alcohol service plan that includes the involvement of all stakeholders. The typical departments involved would be food and beverage, security, surveillance, regulatory agency, casino management, transportation including valet, retail areas, human resources and hotel. Someone on the management level should be charged with development of a written plan that is reasonable in content, easily implemented and can be audited at any time.

Having a property-wide plan will force departments to comply, and will assure a consistent practice in operations. Not having a plan will usually result in employees doing what they think is right rather than what the property says it should be or what is required by law. The general manager or COO should ask the property executives what exactly the alcohol plan is, and request a copy of the property-wide document.

A complete understanding of all of the laws and regulations involving the service of alcohol and a method to ensure compliance by staff will also keep state officials from executing large fines or suspending liquor service at the casino for weeks or months at a time, affecting revenues, employees and community relations.

There are many aspects of liquor laws and regulations that go beyond the service of alcohol to a person already intoxicated.

Alcohol Management Practices

Alcohol management is much more than watching for a server to assure they do not serve an intoxicated guest alcohol. The law in most jurisdictions provides some detail, and that is where many operations stop and only provide what is required by law. The problem with this concept is that with only minimum requirements for service, the margin for error and risk is much larger for violations, and the ability to demonstrate that you care about your customers and go beyond what is required during a lawsuit is near impossible to show.

There are also many professionals who have the ability to come to your casino and complete an evaluation or audit of your alcohol management practices and written plan, and can assist in streamlining and developing a solid, manageable program, assure appropriate documentation, and demonstrate you are well above the standard of care in your program.

Employee and Manager Training

Alcohol management goes beyond the required training of servers and other employees as a condition of licensing. Assurance that all employees required to have current certification through good record-keeping and scheduling will decrease the risk that an employee slips through the cracks and just happens to be the one who serves the already-intoxicated customer who later kills someone else in a vehicle accident.

Training programs should include all of the people that a property expects will deal with an intoxicated individual. This includes all security personnel, all surveillance personnel, servers, all supervisors and managers including casino shift managers or MODs, valet and transportation employees and anyone else who may encounter an intoxicated person.

This would certainly demonstrate that the property goes above and beyond the typical server-only practice or minimums in most states. Assuring there is a professional training program with certification is also beneficial versus developing one internally, which may or may not withstand the scrutiny of a lawsuit and expert testimony.

In those properties with nightclubs, the issues become more intense with VIP and bottle service. In these environments, the push for buying a bottle or table creates a void in service management and the ability to monitor a table of guests who are pouring their own drinks from an expensive bottle of premium liquor.

Unfortunately, the law in all states does not limit liability in bottle service, and the exposure to litigation is still high in that bottle service is not an exception to the service rules for intoxicated persons. In these operations, a supplemental training program for those employees involved in nightclub-style bottle service would be a good idea to once again demonstrate that you do more than what is required and care about the safety of your customers.

If you train the staff appropriately and at sufficient intervals, they will all be aware of the symptoms and methods to not only detect if a person is intoxicated, but at what level, what the physiological process of intoxication is, and the process of slowing down alcohol consumption or cutting off the individual from further alcohol.

Alcohol management training is a perishable skill that fades quickly if employees do not practice the skills, and should be emphasized routinely through regular operations and discipline for violations.

Written Procedures

Whatever your written procedures are, can they be reasonably followed? It does you little good to have a strong policy that cannot be followed or is only followed when time or business permits.

Do you have an actual written protocol that states what is expected of an employee if they come upon an intoxicated person? Are there tripwires in place that alert appropriate personnel of the person and what actions should be taken? These written procedures should not be complex or complicated.

At minimum, there should be procedures for what management would like employees to do in the case of a customer asking for alcohol who is potentially intoxicated, what to do if an obviously intoxicated person enters the casino, if a person is found passed out who is intoxicated, and incident response for people suspected of being intoxicated.

Additionally, a written protocol of the security department responses to include written documentation, appropriate notifications, cut-off protocol and provisions for providing a safe ride home are good practices for any casino.

Security Personnel

Once physical security personnel are trained, they can be instrumental in detection of intoxicated patrons. Security staff will be the ones who will deal with that customer when the various other employees can’t or won’t. Assurance that all intoxication contacts are well-documented on logs or reports will demonstrate that the casino takes that next step in managing alcohol on their property. Having a specific department deal with intoxicated guests is desirable to assure consistent application, guest safety and documentation.

Surveillance Personnel

The surveillance staff, regardless of the reporting relationships, should monitor guests for over-intoxication. This allows them to identify potential candidates for evaluation and stopping of service or appropriate ejection. Once a guest is observed by surveillance, they can initiate contact with physical security personnel who can respond and conduct an evaluation of the guest. It is difficult for surveillance to determine if a person is actually drunk from a 30 degree down angle and two-dimensional video.

Surveillance personnel should also be contacted whenever a guest is cut off from alcohol service, to monitor the guest and/or bar location. Ejections of intoxicated guests can also be monitored by surveillance, in that these actions have a higher risk of developing into an incident or arrest. Audits of servers and PTZ patrol (camera-detailed observation of numerous guests and servers) will also prove beneficial in detection of intoxicated guests and servers who are not making appropriate observations and refusing service.

Cut-Off of Alcohol

This is by far the most scrutinized process during a lawsuit that involves intoxication. It is also a common area that is not well-managed or documented in most casinos. Although most operations will practice this process when a person is becoming intoxicated, they lack the follow-up to assure the protocols are followed and do not document when they practice positive alcohol management.

The server should be the person with primary authority to stop serving a customer alcohol. In some casino environments, a designated manager is charged with making these observations for consistency. A beverage supervisor is a typical manager who will respond to any report of an intoxicated guest, and will investigate and evaluate. This safeguard allows the person charged with service of alcohol to cut off the patron, and then they have the ability to instruct the employees they supervise not to further furnish alcohol. Regardless, all servers must be told that the customer has been cut off from further alcohol. Security staff should also have the authority to stop alcohol service to an individual.

Security personnel should also be involved in the customer contact. They should also consider the perceptions of the customer, and make sure they are not embarrassed by the management action. Having security personnel present further amplifies the authority of the person cutting off service.

The incident should be logged by the beverage supervisor in the shift report, security should log the incident and surveillance should also log and identify any associated video footage. Proof of reasonable alcohol management practices cannot be underemphasized when defending a lawsuit. Proof that you went above reasonable practices increases your chances to defend a lawsuit.

If resistance is met by these departments and they tell you they do not have the time to do these things for every person that is cut off, you already have a problem, and with it most likely numerous claims against the property already.

Ejection of Intoxicated Guests

Having a plan will help in this process, which varies from state to state. In some jurisdictions, the law specifically requires that an intoxicated person must be removed from the premises within a short period of time once detected. This means that the clock starts ticking once any employee makes the observation.

The persistent issue in most casinos is that no employee wants to deal with a drunk, even though the customer became that way inside the casino. Merely escorting the guest out the front doors does not work, and actually increases the risk of injury or death, especially if there are high traffic volumes and the ability to wander off. The property must have some plan to deal with those guests who are intoxicated, assuring them safe transportation home or to a safe place. They ultimately should also care for the customer even if a safe ride cannot be located.

Transportation

Many casinos provide shuttle services for customers, and this is a good option to bring customers home. Documenting those persons transported home because of intoxication will also prove valuable in the event of a claim. In other areas, a taxi may be an option, or even a company vehicle to be utilized for the safe ride home at the expense of the property.

Valet should also be well-informed and trained regarding allowing a potentially intoxicated guest to drive away from the property. If a valet attendant hands the keys to an intoxicated patron who drives off the property and causes injury or death, the liability will certainly increase.

Options for property personnel include to simply advise the guest that they will only give them keys if a police officer tells them to, and then call the police to deal with the issue. In worst-case scenarios where police are not readily available, dealing with a complaint the following day is much easier than a courtroom later.

Your property should be able to do more than what is required by law or that is normal for a casino. If you exceed what is required, your chances for defending a claim or lawsuit increase dramatically. There are many aspects of alcohol management that need to come together at the property level and assure that all management and employees are very familiar and trained in how to deal with an intoxicated guest.

Even if you are not located in a Dram Shop Liability state like Nevada or South Dakota, there still should be an organized plan and procedures to assure your guests can enjoy alcohol safely and continue to contribute to the success of the casino.

Author: Alan W. Zajic

Alan W. Zajic is a Nevada-licensed security consultant, and teaches security and surveillance for the UNLV and UNR gaming management programs. For more information, go to www.alanzajic.com.