POLITICS

Alberta judge wants new law to limit number of drinks served in bars

03/26/2012 01:02 EDT | Updated 05/26/2012 05:12 EDT
FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - A judge wants the Alberta government to pass a law limiting the number of drinks a person can be served in a bar, but liquor officials doubt such legislation would be feasible.

They also believe bar staff receive enough training to know when to cut off drinkers who've had enough.

The judge's recommendation is part of an inquiry report about the death of Ronald Joseph Macaulay.

Macaulay died in November 2007 after drinking at least 20 ounces of hard liquor in less than three hours at a hotel bar in Fort McMurray.

He had a blood alcohol level of about .50 — more than six times the legal driving limit. He died in hospital.

"In my view, this was a case of binge drinking," provincial court Judge James Jacques wrote in his report released Monday.

He described the province's Gaming and Liquor Act as an "insufficient safeguard." It currently requires bartenders stop serving liquor to patrons who appear intoxicated.

"Bar staff can be trained to look for signs of intoxication, but unless there is some hard limit on the amount of alcohol that a patron may be served over a given time, rapid drinking binges will continue to take lives."

Christine Wronko, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, said officials have reviewed the judge's report but won't be considering a new law.

"At this time, the focus and the mandate of the (liquor commission) is to put in place education and regulatory programs around responsible liquor service," she said.

Since Macaulay's death, it has become mandatory for all bartenders and bouncers to take training programs, said Wronko. They learn how to spot over-consumption, prevent drunk driving and stop underage drinking.

She said liquor service regulations have also come into effect that set minimum drink prices and limits on happy hours.

It would be difficult to implement a law that put a general drink cap on bar patrons, Wronko suggested. Depending on how big and busy a bar was, how could a bartender keep track? And how could a bartender know how much a person had had to drink before walking through the door?

The judge said he realizes such a law "would not entirely eliminate binge drinking in bars, particularly where patrons are able to 'bar-hop' to other establishments.

"But it would, in my view, reduce significantly the likelihood of incidents like the one that took the life of Mr. Macaulay."

It's not known if Macaulay had anything to drink before he walked into the bar four years ago. Staff testified last month at the inquiry that he appeared fine that afternoon. But the judge noted Macaulay was an experienced drinker who might not have shown overt symptoms of intoxication.

Staff said Macaulay kept ordering double vodkas and shooters and, after joining other people at their table, drank all their unfinished drinks when they went home.

The bartender who served Macaulay had not yet received her training certificate. At the time, bars were required only to have one trained bartender working per shift.

She testified Macaulay appeared fine when she left for a medical appointment. When she returned after 30 minutes, she found him passed out in his chair.

Staff called RCMP. An officer who responded was so concerned for Macaulay's health, he called for an ambulance.

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had Macaulay's name spelled incorrectly.