Can volunteer beer servers be held liable for injuries at a Major League ballpark?

The Milwaukee Brewers rallied to win their April 3 Opening Day game at Miller Park, but for the stadium's volunteer concessions workers, the first nail-biter of the new season came earlier, on March 30.

That's when SportService, the concessionaire that serves Miller Park, backed off its intention to hold volunteer beer servers solely liable for any injuries to or resulting from intoxicated patrons, according to Steve O'Connell, executive director of the Sherman Park Community Association. O'Connell's group, one of dozens that count on stadium concessions work for the bulk of their annual fundraising, is contracted to provide 14 volunteers from its pool of 75 to SportService to work a concessions stand at each of 16 day games during the season. In all, the pool of Miller Park volunteers outnumbers SportService employees by a 4-to-1 ratio, O'Connell says. According to Tom Olson, manager of SportService's Miller Park operation, typically half of all Miller Park concessions stands open on a given game day are serviced by volunteers. On Opening Day, it's eight out of every 10.

Armed with such leverage, O'Connell played hardball. He took his liability beef to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which made it the top story in the paper's March 29 edition. It became the talk of local talk radio a day later. When contacted by AB on March 31, Olson said, "Nothing has changed. We haven't done anything as far as alcohol and the nonprofit groups. I just think it got blown out of proportion, and there was a lot of misunderstanding on their part."

For his part, O'Connell did his best to understand Section 10 of the 2006 SportService contract, which he says represented the first-ever mention of alcohol liability in the four years his group has been working games. (Volunteer groups are expected to and typically do carry general liability insurance in the event of worker injury.) O'Connell, whose organization earned $14,600 at Miller Park last season, sought legal counsel and shopped for liquor liability insurance, only to discover that such premiums proved cost-prohibitive. He says that only one carrier even considered insuring his group, given the fact that Miller Park serves beer in 18- and 24-ounce cups, as opposed to the standard serving size of 12 ounces. That, and the fact that SportService has invested in and now mandates alcohol-management training for all volunteers through the nonprofit TEAM Coalition, made it hard for O'Connell to accept SportService's apparent willingness to "hang us out to dry" when it came to liability. "We made that very clear to them," he says. " `We're acting as your agents. We are the ones serving your beer.' "

Alcohol management has long caused anxiety among sports venue concessionaires, but more so in recent months. Last November, "Dateline NBC" sent four individuals with hidden cameras to Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Miller Park, documenting 18 incidents in which alcohol-service policies were violated. Olson recalls four violations involving Miller Park volunteers. "There is no lenience there - for volunteer groups or hourly employees," he says. "If you do something wrong, you're gone."

In January 2005, a jury specified $105.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to be paid by concessionaire Aramark based on a 1999 incident in which a drunken driver traveling home from a football game at Giants Stadium struck another car, leaving a two-year-old New Jersey girl paralyzed. Says Olson, "I think that was a wake-up call, not just for guys like me, but for the whole industry."

According to Jill Pepper, executive director of TEAM Coalition, 18,300 concessions workers serving sports and entertainment venues have received the coalition's alcohol-management training since last September, including 8,600 who serve Major League Baseball parks. Miller Park's total of 665 trained individuals is slightly above average, while Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, home of the world champion White Sox, leads the way with 12,041.

Still, much work needs to be done. O'Connell reports that 45 of his 75 volunteers (many of whom don't begin working at Miller Park until the summer months) had undergone training as of April. "Our position is whoever is serving needs to be trained," says Pepper. "They need to understand exactly what it is that they're doing, what it means to look for the warning signs of impairment, what it means to understand absorption-rate factors and blood-alcohol content, and - most important for their job function - what the policies are at that venue."

Miller Park's policies include checking the photo ID of any patron who appears younger than 30, limiting purchases to two beers per patron, and suspending sales entirely after the seventh inning. SportService employees monitor concessions stands to ensure policies are followed. "We've really stepped it up a notch and put our hands around the whole volunteer group program," Olson says. "They all have to come through training and they all get photo IDs, so there is not one person who can walk into this building and work for a group who has not passed the TEAM training test."

According to O'Connell, who received his training years ago but attended two sessions prior to the start of this season (in large part to gauge the developing liability controversy), alcohol-management policies and procedures are receiving far greater emphasis than in the past. "We give them the best training possible," Olson adds. "We tell them in the training class that if they have one question in their mind about serving someone a beer, don't. It's that simple. We'll back them up 100 percent."

So will Sherman Park's insurance carrier, which has deemed the group's general liability insurance adequate again. "As long as we can safely say that our volunteers follow the three precautionary steps - they check the person's age, they check to see if the person appears to be sober, and they only serve the person two beers - then the individual who is the last known vendor won't be liable," O'Connell says.

Admittedly nervous about the initial SportService contract, at least as he understood it, O'Connell felt safe and secure back behind the counter of one of Miller Park's busiest concessions stands on Opening Day. In fact, one couldn't fault him for feeling downright celebratory. "People were high-fiving us, giving us all kinds of tips," he says. "They were appreciative that somebody stepped up to the plate in the name of common folk."

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.