Michael and Kathy Lee Gatto’s son was killed in a violent and tragic incident at Rude Rudy’s bar in Statesboro last August. Now they hope a law they are proposing would create more responsible ownership in all businesses that serve alcohol in Georgia.
Named for their late son Michael, who was a freshman at Georgia Southern when he died, “Michael’s Law” would require that every Georgia business licensed to sell alcohol maintain insurance, including specialized insurance for problems resulting from the use of alcohol, as well as general liability insurance. The legislation also would raise the minimum age for bartenders and bouncers from 18 to 21 and require training for bartenders, bouncers, servers and the business owners who employ them.
After accumulating $150,000 in medical bills from the heroic efforts to save their 18-year-old son’s life, the Gattos learned that not only did Rude Rudy’s have no insurance, but that Georgia bar owners are not required to carry liquor liability insurance or general liability insurance.
The fact is most responsible restaurant and bar owners do have liability insurance because it is a necessary part of doing business. John Starkey, who owned Rude Rudy’s before the mayor and Statesboro City Council forced it to close down, was allowed to be an irresponsible owner partly because he didn’t have to make liability insurance part of his regular expenses.
The Gattos, who live in Cumming, just north of Atlanta, told Statesboro Herald reporter Al Hackle the insurance requirement would make bars, stores and restaurants accountable to their insurers, instead of just to the state and local governments.
Also, they told Hackle they are working with two state representatives, Rep. Geoff Duncan, R-Cumming, and Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, on the legislation for Michael’s Law. While Duncan and Dudgeon support the efforts by the Gattos to effect positive change, they are skeptical they can convince enough fellow legislators to pass a bill in the 2015 General Assembly session that would place stricter insurance requirements on establishments.
Still, Reps. Duncan and Dudgeon said the bill they will introduce at the session that begins Monday will include the liability insurance mandate.
While some would argue adding another regulation to businesses serving alcohol is just more government interference, we believe requiring said businesses to maintain minimum liability insurance coverage is hardly onerous.
Additionally, the legislation would apply a minimum age of 21 for bartenders and bouncers, but not to servers who wait tables in restaurants, and require specific training.
Currently, only three states — Alaska, Nevada and Utah — make it illegal for anyone under 21 to serve alcohol to paying customers. In Statesboro, most of the workers in our restaurants are college students, and many are under 21. In fact, surveys of restaurant servers throughout Georgia show close to 50 percent are under 21.
While we understand the reason behind the Gattos including that stipulation in Michael’s Law — the off -duty bouncer at Rude Rudy’s accused in the death of their son was 20 — we think it would have too much of a detrimental effect on potential employees. The 21-and-over requirement could freeze out a lot of young people from getting jobs they need to support themselves through college.
As we have reported, the Statesboro City Council is in the midst of adjusting the local alcohol ordinance. Among changes it needs to consider, the council should create a bar/tavern category where no one under 21 would be admitted as a customer. That would eliminate the need for wristbands or hand stamps or other methods of identification.
Certainly, some people would use fake IDs and some employees would look the other way and serve people under 21. There is no 100 percent foolproof system, but a bar/tavern designation would make underage compliance checks by law enforcement officers a much more straightforward proposition.
Despite the unimaginable grief caused by the loss of their son, the Gattos are to be commended for looking at ways to increase safety for college students around Georgia and make it harder for bad bar owners to stay in business. Their first draft of Michael’s Law is not perfect, but it’s a good start that deserves serious debate in Atlanta over the next several months.