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Alcohol and Casinos

Is your property doing what is reasonable and responsible?

Alcohol and Casinos

Alcohol has been an important component of gaming across the U.S. and around the world. As gaming evolved in the U.S., so did the individual jurisdictions that control the sale of alcohol and in some tribal casino locations, clashed with a tribe’s culture and sovereignty.

The service of alcohol in conjunction with gambling is synonymous throughout history, and is displayed in commercial television and movies as part of the social experience of gambling in casinos.

Most people agree there exists a moral obligation and, in most jurisdictions, a legal requirement to manage alcohol consumption in gaming establishments.

As a result, each casino property should have an alcohol plan that formalizes the property policies, procedures and processes for all departments in a single document or manual that encompasses anything related to alcohol service.

Any executive that has had to go through a lawsuit involving alcohol knows that a plaintiff will dissect out all policies and procedures from multiple departments and exploit any inconsistencies between departments and protocols that are contrary to established regulations or laws and promotes confusion and lack of consistency. If a property exceeds the common practices of competitor properties, the chances of prevailing in a legal action increase dramatically.

Although I have never come across a casino where alcohol is served that did not have some form of protocols for alcohol management, I have seen properties that do not have clear and obvious ones that mandate a reasonable effort to prevent at least excess intoxication. I have also seen instances where a plaintiff attorney will state during opening arguments that the defendant casino did not even have a basic “alcohol plan.”

What better evidence to have at trial or during an inspection by the Alcohol Board than a booklet with bold letters displayed on the cover “Casino Alcohol Plan” that includes beverage service standards, security and surveillance standards, and a documented plan to take reasonable steps to prevent intoxication and deal with intoxicated patrons?

Although there are many people who do not consume alcohol while gambling, the vast majority of adults do indulge as an important part of their entertainment and social experience. Special events such as professional boxing or exhibition matches or popular entertainer concerts drive significant alcohol service and generate revenue. You can be assured that a good plaintiff lawyer will obtain the revenue numbers from the sale of alcohol and attempt to convince a judge or jury that a casino only cares about the money and not intoxication.

The rules or regulations regarding alcohol vary between jurisdictions, from some that prohibit—some that will not permit any alcohol on the casino floor—to unrestricted environments found in markets such as Las Vegas. The customers that travel to or from other jurisdictions become confused due to the changing regulations depending on where they are, and positive customer service skills are required to explain the local laws.

The state laws regarding alcohol service in a casino also vary wildly across the U.S. Those liquor liability laws are commonly referred to as “dram shop laws,” which comes from old English law in that a dram was a measure of ale in past centuries.

The concept was if you were the proprietor or tavern owner, there was a responsibility to make sure your patrons got home safely if you got them intoxicated. Essentially, a tavern owner would have a responsibility to put the drunk patron on their horse and deliver them to his/her spouse if they were responsible for getting them intoxicated.

Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have some form of dram shop laws. Those states without any dram shop liability laws are Nevada, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and South Dakota. In these states without dram shop laws, it becomes difficult to sue a bar or casino should a patron leave the establishment intoxicated and cause serious injury or death—although not impossible. If other factors of negligence are proven, a property in a non-dram shop state could be exposed to negligence liability based on other legal theories.

In today’s legal climate, individual states have the power to develop, promulgate and implement laws pertaining to alcohol including on sovereign land if a tribe wants to sell alcohol as part of the entertainment experience. The key is that in order to sell alcohol within the borders of any state or territory under U.S. jurisdiction, a liquor license is required.

Although some tribes have developed their own liquor laws, the state liquor license still becomes an important factor in compliance if the desire is to sell alcohol within the four walls of a casino.

Each state has different legal standards which include hours that alcohol may be sold in a casino. The majority of jurisdictions have a period of time that alcohol may not be sold, starting somewhere between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. This becomes a challenge when a casino is open to the public 24/7.

The solution that evolved was what is called the “alcohol sweep,” when designated employees patrol through the casino taking any alcohol away from customers at the magic hour when it is no longer legal to sell alcohol and collect all bottles and glasses and remove them from the casino floor.

In Nevada, there is no time limit, nor is there a prohibition for leaving with alcohol along the Strip or in the Downtown concentration of casino properties. Clark County, Nevada, where Las Vegas casinos are located, actually has a county ordinance that prohibits serving alcohol to an intoxicated person even though Nevada is a state that enjoys a lack of liquor liability or dram shop laws.

I would suggest that each top property executive ask departments that serve alcohol or manage alcohol service if there is a cohesive, reasonable and obvious documented plan to manage the service of alcohol and deal with persons who do become intoxicated. A legal review would also be prudent.

 

Beverage Department:

In almost all environments, there is a requirement that any employee who serves alcohol must attend and successfully pass a test on the responsible management and service of alcohol. As a consultant who performs alcohol service audits, I have never found a casino property that when audited, all servers had the training or were actually in possession of their card evidencing the training. This becomes very problematic during a claim or lawsuit when the server involved was not legally trained.

Most properties have service standards that include the amount of alcohol per mixed drink, and some properties have specific restriction on serving multiple drinks to a single customer. Then in nightclub environments where bottle service is promoted, there is typically a lack of documentation on what safeguards are in place to manage alcohol consumption when patrons can pour their own drinks.

The laws do not give any exceptions for bottle service, and whoever serves the bottle is ultimately the person required to manage alcohol consumption and help prevent over-intoxication.

Regardless, a clear and reasonable alcohol service plan should be documented to include what disciplinary actions are expected if a server violates the self-imposed standards. If the top executive of a casino merely asks for a copy of the beverage department policies and procedures and checks to see if there is a well-documented plan to address the moral and legal expectations for responsible alcohol management, they will see for themselves of the need to formalize and tighten up the protocols.

 

Having a formal process to slow down or cut off a customer:

A common mistake in all alcohol service environments is not having a specific process to stop service of alcohol after an appropriate evaluation of a customer that exhibits symptoms of intoxication based on their training. In some states, this is actually mandated in statutory laws or regulations. A property should have a written plan on what the process is to stop service with some form of supervisory oversight.

Plaintiffs will routinely make the accusation that the bartender or server will violate the rules if you tip them in excess. I favor the process in many casinos of the beverage service shift supervisor being the person charged with officially telling a customer they cannot have any additional alcohol.

This process works well in that the beverage supervisor is responsible to complete a written statement to be included in the security report required for any cutoff, is required to communicate to all servers of the action, is required to notify security and surveillance prior to approaching the customer with a security officer, and admonish servers who may have overserved the customer.

The largest benefit to this process is the obvious documentation of your property actually cutting off persons and taking action as proof in a state alcohol audit or lawsuit. Although some properties will complain that this is too burdensome on a beverage supervisor and other departments, that may demonstrate the need for more oversight.

Ideally, a person being cut off from alcohol should be dealt with in a positive customer relations manner, not be embarrassed by the action, have good documentation including surveillance video, and document how the customer was assisted in their intoxicated state. A beverage supervisor can accomplish this important function.

 

Dealing with the intoxicated customer:

In many instances of alcohol-related customer contact, the customer arrived intoxicated and sometimes was served. Ideally, if a property can prohibit already-intoxicated customers from going into the casino, that will go a long way in managing alcohol incidents and consumption. The laws in most states do not support the theory that a customer arrived in an intoxicated state and therefore the casino is not responsible. Already-intoxicated customers typically are not the demographic casinos attempt to attract.

Properties outside of Nevada that place security personnel at every public entrance have the immediate ability to stop intoxicated people from entering and creating incidents or a higher risk of an alcohol-related incident. Properties without ingress/egress posted security have a more difficult task in watching for and dealing with an intoxicated customer while on routine patrol.

Regardless, there is also a responsibility that once you have contact with an intoxicated individual, you should assure they have a safe way home or to their hotel room. Having a taxi voucher system or use of a shuttle bus can help in that regard. In these environments where transportation is not possible, more creative methods of preventing an intoxicated customer from wandering into traffic or getting injured is needed. Obviously, the preferred method is to have a plan not to allow customers to become over-intoxicated in the first place.

Care should be given if they are a hotel guest, are inebriated, and are taken to their hotel room. There are instances where a customer has died from alcohol poisoning or aspirated on their own vomit and died. Security and/or EMT protocols to asses the customer should be considered.

 

Training

As previously stated, most states (including Nevada) require that all servers have training at mandated intervals in responsible alcohol management. Many also require managers and security personnel to have the same training. I am an advocate of security personnel and any supervisor or manager that may have to deal with an intoxicated customer be trained in responsible alcohol management.

If HR is the department responsible to make sure all employees required to be trained are actually trained, a process to check or audit that training should also be considered. Responsible alcohol management training is a perishable skill that requires periodic refresher training.

I am also an advocate of employee-signed acknowledgement in writing. The document should be in the form of an agreement that the employee will not serve an intoxicated customer, and other items of importance. This always demonstrates to team members management’s emphasis, and will assist in disciplinary infractions related to over-service. It is also a productive document in legal actions.

 

Formal Reporting of Alcohol Intoxication

Security personnel are the obvious choice for most properties to document alcohol intoxication incidents in a formal report. If security documents incidents, I would suggest that security complete the incident report to include actual voluntary statements for all personnel involved including the server, beverage supervisor, security officers and supervisor involved, and any other appropriate witnesses. In addition, surveillance should also pull and save video of associated activity and prepare a review report for positive documentation.

 

Inspect What You Expect

Some form of periodic review or audit will help to reinforce the alcohol plan. A security department can be required to submit a summary of alcohol incidents monthly to the general manager, beverage manager or any other executive which will promote positive alcohol management practices. Surveillance can also complete audits of servers to watch for overpouring or serving to an intoxicated person.

Completing an audit of training and compliance will almost always assist in enforcement and awareness. Mandating a team member cannot work if they do not have a current card evidencing alcohol training will also assist. An HR director can also complete a monthly summary of employee violations related to alcohol service or abuse.

Any time it is known that a property manager is checking on a particular process, it invariably results in positive results.

And finally, the top property executive with oversight of alcohol service or the general manager should imagine they are in a deposition or trial and being asked questions regarding how your property responsibly manages alcohol.

 

Key Takeaways For Developing A Reasonable Alcohol Plan:

  • Have an overall alcohol plan that includes all departments involved in alcohol in one document.
  • Property top executive can ask for all departments to submit any policy, procedure, protocol or practice involving alcohol to a designated executive and the legal department to do a cursory review.
  • Determine a method to prepare the all-encompassing plan (involve stakeholders, etc.).
  • Prevent already-intoxicated people from entering the casino.
  • Determine the specific supervisor (not employee) to be charged with formal cutoffs.
  • Mandate a comprehensive written report with all parties submitting written statements.
  • Inspect what you expect. Have a process to make sure your desired deliverables are being accomplished. Make appropriate annual revisions.

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