Additional Information on Responsible Beverage Service Programs

What are Responsible Beverage Service programs? How do they relate to the commercial host liability policy?

Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) programs can provide model policies, procedures, and skill development for identifying and refusing service to underage and intoxicated persons, among other topics. A popular misconception is that they are limited to standardized training courses for alcohol servers and sales staff. As discussed below, trainings are an important aspect of RBS programs, but to be comprehensive, an RBS program also must include a second component: internal establishment policies, procedures, and practices regarding responsible service of alcohol (collectively referred to as internal practices). Training programs help retailers implement the internal practices.24,25

Examples of internal practices can include:

  • Avoiding marketing practices that encourage intoxication (e.g., price discounting, happy hours, servings of multiple drinks, or other drink promotions);
  • Instituting age verification procedures that ensure all patrons are adults;
  • Prohibiting alcohol consumption among alcohol servers and sales staff on the job;
  • Providing adequate security staff;
  • Providing adequate staff to observe patrons and to monitor drinks served and consumed;
  • Adopting serving practices that reduce the likelihood of intoxication and reduce the likelihood of service to those who are underage or visibly intoxicated;
  • Developing and distributing an establishment policy manual to staff;
  • Providing staff training to ensure implementation of internal policies; and
  • Implementing disciplinary and remedial procedures when violations occur.26

RBS programs are closely linked to the commercial host liability policy. As noted above, for a retailer to be held liable in a commercial host liability lawsuit, the plaintiff must establish that the retailer acted negligently. RBS programs can provide a factual basis for determining whether this key element exists in a particular case. For example, suppose an establishment has no internal policies regarding ID checking and does not train its staff regarding appropriate procedures for ensuring underage sales do not occur. This can be used as evidence by the plaintiff that the establishment acted negligently. Conversely, an establishment that has polices and conducts training can use that as evidence of responsible service practices, even if an underage person was sold to because he/she used an ID that appeared valid.

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What are the elements of a comprehensive Responsible Beverage Service training program?

Retail establishments can adopt the practices that work best for their business, clientele, and level of risk. Note that the practices can be developed and implemented on either an informal or formal basis, and that positive outcomes can result from the adoption of even a single new serving practice.

A comprehensive RBS training program includes two components: server/seller training and manager training. Management training is often overlooked, even though managers play a critical role in implementing RBS practices.24 The training modules include four key elements:

  1. Attitude change – To promote support for the program among staff, the owner explains the benefits of preventing intoxication and underage drinking in the establishment.
  2. Knowledge – Staff learn to recognize the effects of alcohol, signs of intoxication, and relevant laws and regulations.
  3. Skills – Staff become able to recognize intoxication, refuse service, and avoid problems when dealing with intoxicated or underage patrons.
  4. Practice – Staff practice role-playing and completing other exercises to give participants hands-on experience.15,26

Research on the effect of RBS training programs is inconclusive due to variability in program quality, comprehensiveness, implementation, and research design. These inconsistencies led the Community Prevention Services Task Force to conclude that there is “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of responsible beverage service training programs for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms at the community level.”22 There is limited research on the impact of implementing specific RBS practices (which, as noted above, is distinct from implementing RBS training programs), and results are also inconclusive.

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Do RBS programs provide a defense to a commercial host claim?

In general, evidence that a retailer did or did not adhere to specific RBS practices at the time of the illegal service may help determine whether the retailer was negligent, which is a key element of common law commercial host liability lawsuit.11 As of January 1, 2016, 19 states have mandated and 26 states have enacted laws to encourage retailers to provide RBS training to their staff.23 The RBS practices included in the training may provide a basis for determining whether a retailer acted reasonably or negligently.

As of 2015, 6 states (Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont) recognized through statutory enactment an RBS affirmative defense.3,27 This defense to liability is intended as an incentive for retailers to participate in voluntary RBS training and implement the practices it recommends. Typically, the defense allows a retailer to offer evidence that RBS practices were implemented and adhered to at the time of an illegal alcohol sale to an underage or intoxicated patron as proof that he or she was not negligent, and therefore not liable for the damages. The responsible practices required for the defense vary from state to state, and are usually stated in general terms (i.e., there may not be a specific list of practices that must be followed in order to mount the defense).

The RBS practices affirmative defense requires more than showing that a retailer trained his/her staff or adopted an RBS program. The defense requires proof that RBS practices were utilized at the time of the alleged service.22 The RBS affirmative defense was introduced in 1985 as part of a model commercial host liability law developed pursuant to a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.28

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