Politics

Bottoms Up: South Carolina Venue Crisis Rages On

Skyrocketing insurance premiums claim another victim … will Palmetto State lawmakers finally take action?

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A South Carolina lawmaker is the latest casualty of a “sloppily written” law which has caused insurance premiums to skyrocket across the Palmetto State. The question now is whether small business owners will heed his advice ahead of the 2024 legislative session and fix the law.

On December 1, 2023, state representative Jay Kilmartin (R) surrendered his alcohol license to the S.C. Department of Revenue (SCDOR) upon discovering his premium cigar shop could no longer afford liquor liability insurance. With that, he joined the ranks of hundreds victimized by what has been dubbed the “S.C. Venue Crisis,” or SCVS.

“I promised I would bring my small business experience to the State House,” Kilmartin said within minutes of yielding his permit to the state. “[This] is a critical issue which is putting tremendous strain on small, mom-and-pop establishments who have a license issued by the state to serve adult beverages.”

According to Kilmartin, co-owner of The Cigar Militia, the liability insurance for his storefront jumped from $1,500 annually to $28,000 within months — a premium worth more than half his annual sales in alcohol.

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HOW WE GOT HERE …

In 2017, state lawmakers passed (and governor Henry McMaster signed) S.116 — a bill requiring all businesses serving alcohol after 5:00 p.m. to carry a minimum $1 million liquor liability insurance policy. While the measure was intended to help victims of impaired driving, Venue Crisis advocates believe exploitative lawsuits have caused insurance rates to skyrocket. 

According to opponents of the 2017 law, South Carolina’s tort laws enable mom-and-pop businesses which bear as little as one percent fault in alcohol-related incidents to bear full financial responsibility for a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit. In other words, a restaurant that serves someone a mimosa at 9:00 a.m. could be held accountable for vehicular manslaughter after that person visited several other venues within the day.

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“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Alex Zelling, co-owner of the Cigar Militia who joined Kilmartin in protest at SCDOR. “If we were to serve somebody … am I supposed to drive around and follow this person around all day long, because now I’m liable for what he does at another establishment?”

Zelling is not alone in his bewilderment. When the law was ratified, approximately 25 businesses dealt liquor liability insurance in South Carolina, according to SCVC. Today, less than five remain in the Palmetto State.

“We just can’t take this anymore,” said Sheila Merck, SCVC’s operations director who spoke alongside Kilmartin and Zelling. “Everybody’s being penalized for someone else’s responsibility. So we’re out here trying to help everybody understand that unless we do something, this is going to continue.”

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THE PATH FORWARD …

The purportedly “cataclysmic” results of the 2017 law has drawn a response from some Republican lawmakers. Just this year, the Senate introduced the S.C. Justice Act (S.533) that could reform liability laws by having business pay for their equivalent of fault in a civil lawsuit.  

Moreover, the House introduced the S.C. Save Our Venues Act (H.4529) that could remove businesses from civil liability brought by an intoxicated customer — so long as the business did not knowingly sell the person alcohol beyond an intoxicating limit. 

Note the emphasis on could, as neither bill gained serious momentum during the last legislative session. Both bills will be reconsidered in the 2024 legislative session which coincides with primary elections for both chambers of the S.C. General Assembly.

Which brings us to the next point …

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IN THE INTERIM …

“The only thing that politicians will respond to is political pressure,” Kilmartin said. “So call them, go down to your house and your office that they’re sitting in — they’re sitting in your chair — and tell them, ‘you better change this or I’m going to find somebody to run against you because this is absolutely ridiculous.’”

In accordance with Kilmartin’s rallying cry, those eager to locate/hound their state legislator may do so by clicking here. Remember … these public servants work for you.

SCVC is scheduled to hold a rally outside the State House at 8:30 a.m. EST on the first day of legislative session. We’re told that more information will be released on their website in due time. Keep it tuned to FITSNews for continued updates on the S.C. Venue Crisis as the General Assembly prepares to reconvene on January 9, 2024.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Andrew Fancher (Travis Bell)

Andrew Fancher is a Lone Star Emmy award-winning journalist from Dallas, Texas. Cut from a bloodline of outlaws and lawmen alike, he was the first of his family to graduate college which was accomplished with honors. Got a story idea or news tip for Andy? Email him directly and connect with him socially across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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6 comments

Too bad December 12, 2023 at 7:08 pm

So this guy is personally hurt by his own party’s legislation and he wants people go to their Rep and raise hell…when he IS a Rep who could talk to other legislators personally?

Must be really disliked by his colleagues.

Reply
Marc McDowell Top fan December 13, 2023 at 8:23 am

He is just one legislator making a stand for change —why would he not call attention to this issue? Also, he is relatively new to the House and this law was enacted in 2017. Not sure how this makes him “disliked by his colleagues”

Reply
Too bad December 13, 2023 at 11:51 am

lol

It’s an “issue” only because he was personally affected. Calling people to harass their Reps to help hisself. Wouldn’t it be easier to work with your fellow Reps? Make some deals, etc. This is just typical SC silliness.

And people want legal weed in SC? Can you imagine how screwed up that would be after SC republicans got ahold of it?

Reply
Marc McDowell Top fan December 14, 2023 at 7:14 am

So what’s wrong with doing both? Restaurant owners should call their representatives about this issue AND he should work with his fellow legislators for change. What would you do if it affected your business?

Reply
CongareeCatfish Top fan December 13, 2023 at 9:38 am

The Plaintiff’s bar in this state, which has always had powerful members in the Legislature, has always played machiavellian games with tort law fault apportionment. Every time a new law has been passed to attempt to make it firm and mandatory, they find ways to tinker with the law to make loopholes that can still result in deep pocketed defendants with minimal fault still getting saddled with the lion’s share of the verdict.

Reply
Marc McDowell Top fan December 14, 2023 at 7:12 am

Absolutely agree! We elect trial lawyers to pass laws and this is the result

Reply

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