Legislators prepare to take action on skyrocketing bar insurance rates as January rally looms

Posted 12/14/23

A rally will be held at the Statehouse next month as anxiety grows among bar owners about mounting liquor liability costs.

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Legislators prepare to take action on skyrocketing bar insurance rates as January rally looms


A rally will be held at the Statehouse next month as anxiety grows among bar owners about mounting liquor liability costs.

S.C. Venue Crisis, a group that has emerged as a vocal advocate amid what many in the industry are terming a crisis, will mount the event Jan. 9 at 8:30 a.m., responding to fears that businesses in the Midlands and elsewhere in the state may be forced to shutter their doors due to high insurance rates.

Businesses with liquor or beer licenses in the Palmetto State are required to maintain a liability insurance policy that covers at least $1 million.

The requirement came from a bill passed in 2017 known as Bill 116. The bill's impacts have been felt across the Palmetto State, as more than 10 businesses have shut their doors due to the insurance requirements, according to Asheton Reid, director of community outreach for S.C. Venue Crisis.

To maintain the required policy, monthly insurance payments average nearly $4,000 a month, she said, adding that the rally has been a long time coming and that the organization has struggled to generate awareness about the issue.

“We’re not really sure why some business owners aren’t being open and transparent about the numbers they are facing when it comes to this versus what they were paying,” Reid told the Chronicle. 

“We would appreciate more owners being transparent with their customers and utilizing social media as much as possible to help spread the word to help others understand the astronomical increase,” she added.

Reid is also a small business owner in the Upstate town of Piedmont. Her store, Rockerbelles, is fortunate to not be directly impacted by the insurance liability laws, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t impacted at all. 

Reid emphasizes the ripple effect that the closing of businesses would have. 

“It has a drastic ripple effect, not including the tax dollars and the revenue that would be missing, which could be millions if not billions (depending on how many would have to close due to this issue) of dollars on an annual basis which then goes to education and police and things of that nature,” Reid said. 

But the rally isn’t just about liquor liability. S.C. Venue Crisis is calling for liability reformation across the state.

“This is an opportunity because it's not just the S.C. Venue Crisis Rally,” said Sheila Merck, director of operations for the group. “It's not just about the music venues and the bars and the restaurants and the hospitality industry.” 

“This is a rally for tort reform,” she added. “This is a lawsuit reform. This is an opportunity for all South Carolinians to step up and come together and show how important it is that we have more balanced liability laws.”

The state of insurance in S.C. has gained the attention of state representatives.

Rep. Chris Wooten (R-Lexington) said he reached out to downtown Lexington restaurants to assess the impact Bill 116 has had on them. 

“Downtown Lexington does not have that big of an issue at this point because there aren’t that many bars,” Wooten said. “But it could turn into one because we’ve got new draft houses and other things going on.”

Lexington has seen several breweries and bars open within the county in the last few years. 

Now, some of the staples are worried they’ll be required to shut their doors by 2025. 

Phill Blair, owner of WECO Bottle and Biergarten, said the business’ insurance rate increased about 300% when it renewed the policy in October. 

“Not only do we have zero claims here… We don't even serve liquor and most of our stuff is to go,” Blair recently told the Chronicle. “I can't think of the reason why it would triple in one year with no incidents whatsoever, other than it's what's happening to everyone.”

County business owners are wary of the impacts the bill will continue to have if it’s not handled soon.

“If our insurance doubled again there's no way we could pay it. There's no math that makes that happen,” Blair said. “The only way to pay that amount would be to double our prices. But that puts you out of business anyway, right?”

The issue concerns legislators, but until January, there’s not much to be done according to Wooten.

“I feel pretty good that something that's going to come, it's going to at least get to committee,” Wooten said.  “We're going to have to do something about it because folks are going broke just to pay their insurance.”

Rep. Micah Caskey (R-Lexington) said he’s uncertain of what will happen in January. 

“I don't know what the solution will look like and so like every issue,  I have an open mind and a curious mind about what we need to do to fix this,” he told the Chronicle.

Caskey said his and other representatives' lack of knowledge is part of the issue.

“You know, how is the insurance industry regulating this? This is where I have to admit I'm not super knowledgeable about insurance regulations in terms of how they come up with policy premiums,” Caskey said. “But I do know that not every place that sells alcohol looks the same which means policies and premiums probably don’t look the same.”

It’s uncertain if either representative will appear at the rally in January. Wooten expressed concern to the Chronicle about the impact, if any, the rally will have on legislation.

“The more attention you give it, the better,” he said. “You know, but for rallying back- I commend them for their efforts. I don't know if that's going to make a difference or not. I hope it does.” 

Other representatives, such as Rep. Jay Kilmartin (R-Lexington), will be speaking at the January rally. 

Kilmartin has been an active voice alongside the S.C. Venue Crisis not only because he is a business owner (operating The Melting Pot and The Cigar Militia in Columbia) but because, he said, he commits to his constituents.

“I ran on being the voice for small businesses so I will speak for every small business,” Kilmartin said. “I can afford to pay higher insurance rates, but there are a lot of mom-and-pop places that are gonna close down because they can't afford that.” 

Kilmartin said the rally will be good for getting more attention on the subject. 

“I'll tell you as a house rep, when you hear there's a constituent in your office, your ears perk up and you sit with them,” Kilmartin said. “That's what I do anyway. It matters when voters are there to talk.”

Wooten also called for reform when speaking to the Chronicle. 

“A business, a legitimate business, should not have to pay the price for the terrible decisions of other people,” Wooten said.

“What our economy thrives on… is the small business owner, and I'm completely against more regulation and more government interference for small businessmen who are just trying to make a living,” he added.

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