2015 shapes up as tough year for PLCB license renewals

By Frank Sluzis of Scaringi Law posted in Liquor License Law on Thursday, February 12, 2015.

If past is prologue, Pennsylvania liquor license holders facing renewal before the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 2015 have some reason for concern. My annual survey of Commonwealth Court rulings on licensee appeals of PLCB renewal denials shows a troubling expansion of the duties of establishments to police, control and protect their patrons, on and off the licensed premises.

Police activity surrounding a licensed establishment has always factored strongly into PLCB decisions during the agency's rotating, biannual license renewal process, spread across 11 licensing districts.

This is why as an attorney who focuses on liquor license law at Scaringi & Scaringi P.C., I work closely with each of my clients across the state to help them comply with all PLCB statutes and to proactively self-police their establishments and grounds.

But a PLCB renewal denial case that went before Commonwealth Court in 2014 raises serious concerns about a broad expansion of the area that licensed establishments must police, control and protect.

A troubling expansion of licensee responsibility

At license renewal time, the PLCB has traditionally looked closely at the last two years of police activity at the establishment in question.

But the case involving the 1,300-seat Crocodile Rock in Allentown takes the plain language of the state Liquor Code that refers to a licensee's responsibility for "activity on or about premises and areas under licensee's control" and expands it unreasonably.

In denying the music club's license renewal, the PLCB looked at problems that occurred off the club's premises, a move that Commonwealth Court supported. On Jan. 15, the state Supreme Court refused to hear the club's appeal.

A main issue in denying the license was a drive-by shooting of a man and woman who attended an event at the venue. The unsolved shooting occurred several blocks away at a parking lot unrelated to the club.

In denying the license renewal, however, the PLCB and subsequent Commonwealth Court decisions implied that the licensee should have foreseen the parking overflow situation and taken additional steps to safeguard patrons, even those parking far from the club.

If this seems like a stretch to you, it does to me as well. Yet the ramifications are clear.

The PLCB and Commonwealth Court are placing licensees on notice that they may be held responsible for incidents involving their patrons that occur in areas not under the direct control of the licensee.

A warning to all

Thankfully, the Commonwealth Court ruling in this case is unpublished, meaning it does not establish a legal precedent that has to be heeded in other courts. Still, the ruling could prove persuasive in other PLCB cases and appeals. At the very least, it serves as a window into the current thinking of the PLCB and Commonwealth Court.

The message is clear to all licensed establishments in Pennsylvania: They must do even more to control, police and safeguard the crowds flowing into and out of their establishments. I see this expanded definition of what is considered to be under a licensee's control as a major threat to an establishment's liquor license.

In previous cases, licensees were held responsible for what occurred in their establishments, on their grounds and in the immediate vicinity of their business. In this case, the shooting occurred several blocks away. Worse, it was never established that the shooter was ever inside the club or on the grounds.

This is a departure from past cases, in which license holders were held responsible for altercations occurring off the premises only if the trouble grew out of an incident at the establishment in question.

Good licensees should always monitor and police their crowds, nipping in the bud any brewing fights or burgeoning altercations by proactively warning, separating and/or removing one or both of the alleged antagonists or potential pugilists.

But once again, in the latest case no prior incident among the unknown shooter and the shooting victims, who did attend the event, was ever established. In other words, neither the shooting nor the seeds thereof was ever linked to the licensed establishment in any way, shape or form.

So how could this 1,300-seat venue be stripped of its liquor license and its owners deprived of their livelihood?

I don't know. But the PLCB, backed by Commonwealth Court, has done just that.

The bottom line is that there exists an even heavier burden on liquor licensees to police, patrol and control the crowds flowing into and out of their bars, restaurants and clubs.

It's almost to the point where licensees will have to walk their patrons to their cars. We're not there yet. But this troubling case has moved the PLCB's interpretation of premises crowd control closer to this extreme than ever before.

Consider yourself warned.

Next time

I'll continue to explore 2014 Commonwealth Court rulings to identify emerging liquor law trends that could affect licensees in the coming year.

Thus far, the news is not encouraging.

As I have reported previously, out of more than 50 appeals of liquor license renewal denials that made their way to Commonwealth Court last year, licensees came away with only one win. And if you read the case summaries, as I do, you'll find that this was a grudging win at that.

The situation also raises the concern that the legal tide is turning against liquor licensees at Commonwealth Court, which just so happens to act as the ultimate arbiter of Liquor Control Board appeals. Find out what else the court has been up to that should concern licensees in my next article.

To learn more about how Scaringi Law attorney Frank C. Sluzis can help you, call him toll-free at 877-LAW-2555 or email him at info@scaringilaw.com


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