BATON ROUGE, La. — The mother of LSU student Madison Brooks, who died in January, pleaded with a House committee Thursday to pass a bill to hold bars responsible for serving people under 21.
But, despite her emotional testimony, members of the House Judiciary Committee shot down the bill in a tied 6-6 vote, expressing concerns that insurance rates would spike for bars and that sophisticated fake IDs would leave good-faith bartenders open to legal action.
“I think this is a horrible bill,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who was supported by two other Republicans and three Democrats from New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
He said the bill would effectively protect people breaking the law by drinking under 21 by placing the legal responsibility on bar owners and thus making them more vulnerable to lawsuits.
“If you don’t like this, for goodness’ sake, show me what you like, because we’ve got to do something,” Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, the bill’s author, said in response.
Police say Brooks, 19, was raped by two men after leaving Reggie’s Bar in the Tigerland Bar district near LSU. Then, police say, she was left by the side of the road, where she was struck by a vehicle and left with fatal injuries.
Brooks’ blood-alcohol content was 0.319, police say, nearly four times the legal limit to drive, and three of the four perpetrators arrested in connection to the alleged rape were under 21.
“My daughter is dead, and everything with this tragedy could have been prevented,” said Brooks’ mother Ashley Baustert in tearful testimony.
The bill changed shape significantly over the course of the legislative session. When first filed, it aimed to prevent anyone under 21 from entering a bar.
Several of the popular bars near LSU allow patrons under 21, denoting their underage status with wristbands or an “X” on the hand. This included Reggie’s before it closed and lost its liquor license after Brooks’ death.
In the form rejected by the committee Thursday, though, the bill instead aimed to give cause of legal action to those under 21 who suffered injury or damages because they were served underage.
The same cause for legal action would have been given to those suffering damages or injury by a person served underage and to survivors of people served alcohol under 21, like Brooks’ mother.
In one version of the bill, this cause would have been eliminated if the underage person who was served alcohol used a fake ID. In the version the committee rejected, though, this provision was no longer present, which sparked debate among lawmakers.
“You have a minor who's using a fake ID, who knows they're doing something wrong,” Seabaugh said. “And then you have the bar owner, who looks at the fake ID, thinks it's real, doesn't know they're doing anything wrong.”
But the bar owner would be liable under the bill, Seabaugh said.
Mizell was not convinced. “Frankly, most bars want fake IDs to come in,” she said.
Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, who joined Seabaugh in voting against the bill, said the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control already has responsibility to ensure that bars are not serving people under 21. "I'm just not sure we need to go here," she said.
Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, also opposed the bill, raising concerns that mom-and-pop bars would see their insurance premiums spike.
Jason Nay, the manager and owner of Fred’s Bar and Grill, located next door to Reggie’s, said the bar’s lawyers think the establishment’s insurer would drop its coverage if the bill passed.
He also defended the role of the bars in the LSU community.
“We’re not just selling alcohol, we’re selling memories,” Nay said.
“I think it's really important” Mizell countered later, “when we hear bar owners talking about making memories, that we take some responsibility of the kind of memories we're allowing to be made/”
Paula Zachary is one mother for whom those memories are painful. Her son Brandon, 19, who was enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University, died while driving drunk in 2007 after being served while underaged by a bar in Hammond, she told the committee.
She said she found no fake ID in his possession after his death. Still, she said, the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control told her she had no standing for action against the bar.
She held up her phone to the microphone and played one of the remaining remnants of her son’s life: his voicemail message. The dial tone played, and then Brandon’s voice filled the committee room.
“This is what I have of my son,” she said.
Here is how lawmakers voted:
Voting in favor of Mizell’s proposal to hold bars responsible:
Rep. Randall L. Gaines, D-LaPlace
Rep. Kathy Edmonson, R-Gonzales
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville
Rep. Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany
Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond
Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport
Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans
Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge
Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans
Rep. Joseph A. Orgeron, R-Larose
Rep. Thomas A. Pressly, R-Shreveport