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Drunk Woman's Death Prompts Vigilance at Bars, But They Can't Save All

By Andrea Swalec | May 6, 2013 6:49am | Updated on May 6, 2013 7:44am
 In the wake of the death of a 23-year-old old local, bar owners say they can't prevent every tragedy.
Village Bar Owners Detail Safety Difficulties After Drinking Death
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GREENWICH VILLAGE — A stumbling girl in her 20s looked lost inside the busy Bleecker Street bar Wicked Willy's one chilly night last spring.

When head bartender Michelle Erland approached the young woman, she said her friends had left her and she didn't know where she was. Erland pulled two $20 bills from the cash register, hailed a cab with a coworker and accompanied the drunk girl to her Midtown hotel.

Wicked Willy's owner Andy Ramgoolie said knowing a customer got home safely was worth losing $40 and two staff members for an hour.

"Everyone who goes here, we're responsible for them," he said. "You really have to make sure people get the right care."

Shana Dowdeswell, 23, likely didn't have bartenders who noticed she needed help as she downed whiskey shots on the nightlife-heavy blocks of central Greenwich Village early the morning of Dec. 7.

The actress died of acute and chronic alcoholism on Dec. 12 after she was found collapsed on the stoop of her family's Minetta Street home. Still grieving her daughter's death, her mother, Laurie Smith,  said at a community meeting late last month she wants local bars to help prevent dangerous binge drinking and stop obviously intoxicated people from leaving bars alone.

In the wake of Dowdeswell's death, Village bar owners and staffers have said they spend thousands of dollars on security measures to try to keep bargoers safe, but that they cannot prevent every tragedy.

Speaking over live music in the Bleecker Street bar The Red Lion, general manager Ann Gibson recently ticked off the pub's long list of safety precautions. The bar and restaurant employs four security guards, has 16 video cameras trained on all parts of the establishment, pays for all staff to participate in an alcohol-awareness training and only hires experienced bartenders who can spot signs of trouble early.

Still, Gibson — a pregnant mother of two daughters who said news of Dowdeswell's death "touched my heart" — said bar industry workers know they cannot thwart people hellbent on binge drinking.

"I don't think [bars] can totally prevent something like this from happening," she said, referring to Dowdeswell's death.

Nonetheless, she pushed her staff to try.

"Maybe if [Dowdeswell] had relationships with bartenders, they could have pulled her aside and said something," she said.

On streets full of festive bars advertising $2 beers and $3 test tube shots, some young women said they feel pressure to drink more from bartenders and men who offer free drinks.

"I think a lot of bartenders go overboard, especially if they think a girl is cute. They'll just keep serving," said Jessica, a 22-year-old Hoboken resident who declined to provide her last name in order to pass under the radar of her sales job bosses.

She and two female friends recently downed drinks at three Village bars. As they prepared to leave the MacDougal Street pub Off the Wagon, a bartender asked what else he could bring them.

"You're not just gonna sit there if you don't drink anything," he said flirtatiously, Jessica said.

Instead of heading home for the night, she and her friends drank another round of vodka cocktails.

Down the Hatch management was not available Friday to comment on its policy regarding serving free drinks.

Lamia Funti, co-owner of the LaGuardia Place lounge Le Souk, said she viewed preventing binge drinking as a joint responsibility between bars and patrons.

"People are responsible for what they do, but at the same time [bars] cannot serve someone who is obviously intoxicated," she said, noting the 4,500-square-foot bar and restaurant has six security guards each night and uses a top-of-the-line identification scanner that records images.

Wicked Willy's found itself in the middle of the debate on personal responsibility versus bars' responsibility for the hazards of drinking in 2011, when the bar was was sued by a 22-year-old customer.

Plaintiff Alan Berger, 22, said Wicked Willie's should have protected him from getting so drunk playing beer pong that he walked across a New Jersey highway and got hit by a car. A judge dismissed the suit, ruling that Berger played the drinking game voluntarily and that Wicked Willy's had no legal obligation to warn patrons about the risks of the game.

Ramgoolie declined to discuss the lawsuit but said he believes bars can make nightlife safer.

"We can't curb everything, but we try," he said, noting that like The Red Lion, he pays for all staff members to participate in an alcohol-awareness training.

The New York State Liquor Authority sets requirements for such programs offered by private entities, but it does not require that bar staff members participate in them.

State law prohibits bars from serving "any visibly intoxicated person" and advises staff to recognize signs of drunkenness like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, the smell of alcohol and staggering. Though these criteria are subjective, bars can be held legally accountable for an injury or death caused by a visibly intoxicated person who a bartender served, such as in the case of a death caused by a drunk driver.

The SLA did not respond to inquiries by DNAinfo New York about any violations received by the bars mentioned here.

Dowdeswell drank at the basement bar of BBQ on West Eighth Street before she collapsed, manager Ronnie Mejia confirmed. She seemed "normal," he said, and appeared at the bar for only 45 minutes. Dowdeswell's mother believes BBQ was only one of the establishments where her daughter drank alone on her final night out.

Meija said staff at the bar confiscate IDs they believe are fake and throw out people who are visibly intoxicated. However, they likely don't catch everything.

"I'm upstairs, downstairs. I'm busy. Sometimes I can't see every single person," he said.

Smith, who said neither she nor her family had considered Dowdeswell an alcoholic, said she was heartened to hear about the extent of the security measures at many local bars.

But she said she wants New York state to require alcohol-awareness training for all bar staff.

"People should have personal responsibility, but people who are handing out what could be potentially fatal should be trained," she said. "It would have helped … the bartenders that were serving my daughter that night."