N.H. Liquor Agency Flexes New Suspension Power

Exercising its new power, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission has suspended the Laconia Rod and Gun Club’s liquor license because the club had two illegal sale violations and no liquor liability insurance.

Liquor liability insurance covers lawsuits arising from the actions of someone who drank too much at a bar or restaurant, or bought alcohol illegally at a store.

The insurance is not mandatory. But a recent law gives the commission the right to require insurance if a bar or store has two violations within two years involving sales to underage drinkers or someone who’s already intoxicated. In the meantime, the seller’s license can be suspended indefinitely.

Last week was the first time the commissioners used the law, which took effect in July 2002. Aidan Moore, head of law enforcement for the commission, said at least three similar hearings are scheduled in the next few weeks.

The Laconia Rod and Gun Club’s license was suspended after it committed two violations. The second involved selling to a patron who was already intoxicated.

To get its license back, the private club must show it has at least $300,000 worth of insurance.

Club president Jerry Theberge told the New Hampshire Sunday News he had contacted an insurance agent and was waiting to hear back.

He could be in for a shock, said Paul Sorli, owner of the Portsmouth Gaslight Co.

“I would say that a majority of restaurant owners do not carry liquor liability insurance because it’s just too expensive,” he said.

Sorli, who is expanding his operation into a nightclub, said his insurance costs are expected to rise from $32,000 to as much as $100,000 annually.

“It’s very expensive to buy it when you have a clean record,” he said. “If you have two violations, the question is, can you even acquire the insurance.”

Paul Hartgen, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said his organization has been asked to set up an insurance pool for alcohol liability coverage, but that has proved difficult.

“There are so many variables,” he said. Premiums can vary widely based on an establishment’s location, its clientele, and even the type of music played there — rap, rock, jazz or waltzes.

Hartgen said one restaurant owner he knows who had been paying $11,000 each year got two quotes for renewal: one for $17,000 and one for $42,000.

The law was sponsored by former state Sen. Ned Gordon after he realized that victims of drunken drivers had little ability to recover damages from businesses that sold alcohol illegally to the drivers.

Gordon persuaded his fellow lawmakers that businesses selling alcohol should be “taking responsibility for the consequences, in the same way as when a driver causes an accident and we force him to show financial responsibility” in order to keep his driver’s license, he said.

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