Can a Restaurant Refuse to Serve Alcohol to a Pregnant Woman?

Pregnant Woman with WineRestaurants are private facilities and, as such, have the right, and ability, to enforce any policy they wish with regard to alcohol. This means that restaurants absolutely have the right to make it a policy not to serve alcohol to pregnant women. Unfortunately, this does not negate a pregnant woman’s rights to fair and equal service, and failure to serve a woman when she wishes to order drinks can lead to lawsuits.

Additionally, local ordinances with respect to a pregnant woman’s right to order, and be served, alcohol vary from city to city. A server should fully understand the details of local Duty of Care laws before serving a pregnant woman any beverage containing alcohol, to ensure that service is compliant with local legislation.

Are restaurants liable for damages if a pregnant woman drinks there?

A restaurant is potentially liable if it serves alcohol to a pregnant woman, and she or her infant suffers as a result. An example would be if a pregnant woman came into a restaurant and went on a drinking binge, and then delivered an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome. Under certain circumstances, she could, in fact, sue the restaurant for damages.

For the woman to have grounds for a successful suit, she would have to argue that she was unaware of the potential hazards that alcohol posed to her baby, and her pregnancy. She would thus need to be able to prove that the restaurant did not warn her of the risk the drink posed to her baby before serving her the drink.

In an attempt to both decrease the number of cases of fetal alcohol syndrome and to ensure that these kinds of lawsuits do not occur, most states require every establishment that serves or sells alcohol to post a sign that contains the Surgeon General’s official warning concerning pregnant women and the risk of alcohol use during pregnancy.

It is recommended that restaurants not only post this warning sign near their entrances, but also on the regular dining menu and the alcohol service menu. These signs are often also posted in the ladies’ restroom. Restaurants may also wish to have servers issue this warning verbally to women ordering alcohol.

If a restaurant has a local refuse-to-serve policy, how can it avoid lawsuits?

Restaurants should be aware that, if they choose to enforce the policy, they do run some risk of lawsuit. Ultimately, these policies are discriminatory. They limit a woman’s right to drink based on both her gender and her medical condition. This is a violation of the Civil Liberties Act and, despite the fact that she is pregnant and the fact that alcohol is known to cause fetal complications, the woman’s right to make choices about her body is hers alone.

A woman can sue any restaurant that refuses to serve her alcohol because of her pregnancy, if she feels discriminated against. However, the chance of suit can be minimized if the restaurant clearly posts its local policy. This policy is often attached to any and all Surgeon General warning statements that are posted in the restaurant, including those in entryways and on menus, bar lists, and others.

Also, training waiters to politely state that the restaurant has a blanket policy against serving pregnant women for liability reasons, rather than simply refusing to serve the drink, can reduce the risk of a lawsuit. It is essential that the situation be handled with a certain delicacy, so the woman is not embarrassed and does not feel ostracized by the refusal.

What are Duty of Care laws and do they apply to pregnant women?

Duty of Care laws are legal obligations to act responsibly and with care when performing acts that could reasonably cause harm to others. When serving alcohol, it is considered negligent to serve alcohol if it is reasonable to assume that service will cause harm to others.

For example, if a customer is already drunk, it is reasonable to refuse her the right to service because she is already inebriated. It is also the server’s responsibility to ensure that she doesn’t drink and drive; arranging for a taxi or other car service home if the customer is clearly incapable of driving safely.

This law only applies to pregnant women who have already had enough to drink to argue that they are intoxicated, but it does give restaurants the ability to refuse to serve them alcohol beyond the first or second glass.

If a pregnant woman drinks at a restaurant, and then drives home and is in an accident on the way home, the restaurant could also be found liable for letting her drive. The restaurant is then responsible for, not only the woman and child, but also any property that was damaged and people that were injured as a result of the woman’s accident.

As was mentioned previously, the reason that further drinks are being refused should be made clear to the woman in question. The server should state that, under the Duty of Care law, it is the restaurant’s responsibility to ensure that guests drink responsibly, and because the restaurant could be held liable, no further drinks should be consumed.

  1. Gilles Castonguay

    Dear Wendy Rotelli,
    I am a freelance journalist in Milan, Italy writing a story about this Duty of Care issue that you mentioned in your April 2013 blog posting. Are you aware of any cases or even lawsuits concerning pregnant women being denied a drink at a bar or restaurant? I have read of cases about criminal charges made against pregnant women for drug abuse but that’s about it. The article I am writing will be for Thank you, Gilles.

  2. Claudette f

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. If they elect not to serve a woman who is pregnant alcohol then they cannot be serving alcohol to anybody. Otherwise you’re discriminating based on a disability. The Supreme Court has already ruled that pregnancy is protected status under the ADA .

  3. Abner

    Regardless of it being a disability, pregnancy affects the life of another human being, the fetus. The restaurant can reserve the right to refuse service to a pregnant woman because of the fetus not being a willing consumer of alcohol. Individuals hold the right to belief, and the belief that the fetus is a person is legitimate. Thus, the restaurant is in their right (and should be legally obligated) to deny a pregnant woman, in any state of the union, any alcohol off their menu, regardless of her intent to abort or not, because the restaurant, state, or federal government can consider the fetus an unborn person, not showing consent, or legal age of consent, for consumption.

    Simply belief that a woman is pregnant (due to lack of discovery she is not, regardless of what she says) is grounds (and likely, obligation) to not serve alcohol. This is an example of a tragedy of the commons. Any restaurant or bar that still serves a pregnant woman alcohol is violating the individual rights of that unborn person (dependent on recognition). Trust laws may or may not overrule this, however a restaurant’s right to refuse service for any reason (including lack of belief that the individual is in their legal right to consume, including due to ignorance of the law that she is allowed) likely allows any restaurant anywhere in the United States that any woman who appears pregnant will be denied service.

  4. Camira Naukam

    Abner, that is both incorrect and ignorant. The rights of the fetus do not supersede the right of the mother. US law does NOT recognize fetal rights until viability (which is why abortion is legal), and even then, its rights are limited. Restaurants can actually get in trouble for denying a pregnant woman a drink. For example, in NYC, it’s is illegal to deny a woman an alcoholic beverage based on the fact that she is pregnant. The decision to drink lied lies with the expectant mother alone. This law supersedes the fact that restaurants/bars reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, because it is discriminatory; both gender discrimination and discrimination of a disability/ medical condition apply here.

    What you said about denying a woman based on the belief she is pregnant, even if she isn’t, is ridiculous. Are you suggesting bars require a negative pregnancy test from any woman of child- bearing age before they serve them a drink? Ugh. What is this world coming to?

    FYI, I have a genetic disorder that prevents me from drinking. Even one drink can cause a flare- up that ends up being fatal. So im not since biased drunk justifying their drinking habits. I just believe in physical autonomy and the right to make decisions about our bodies, even when those decisions are for two.

  5. google

    There is definately a great deal to find out about this
    subject. I really like all of the points you’ve made.

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