Wisconsin News

The Spillway Pub will not be further investigated for overserving

ONALASKA, Wis. - The Onalaska police chief said the department does not plan to further investigate The Spillway Pub for how much alcohol bartenders served a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student before she disappeared.

An officer found 23-year-old Neala Frye's body Sunday night by the railroad tracks not far from the bar.

Preliminary autopsy results released yesterday show Frye had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.21 percent and that alcohol was a major factor in her death, along with hypothermia.

But Onalaska Police Chief Jeff Trotnic said after reviewing surveillance video inside the bar, officers do not believe The Spillway Pub bartenders were negligent in serving Frye, because she showed no obvious signs of intoxication.

"She was walking on her own, not stumbling or falling over, not needing any help from any patrons to have her walk around when she left. She left on her own accord. Those are the things that -- although we're not bartenders -- those are the things we would think bartenders would be looking for," said Trotnic.


Her death is sparking a conversation about how much responsibility is on the bartender to cut off a person who is intoxicated.

It's not just a gray area in everyday life for bartenders; it's a gray area in state law, too.

In his seven years behind the bar, Jake Amundson has only had to cut off a customer a handful of times.

"I will especially cut somebody off when they start being disrespectful to the people around them or anybody else that works with me," said Amundson.

Even if it's an uncomfortable situation.

"If I was to isolate somebody and make them feel awkward, the chances of them coming back here are going to be mild to miniscule," said Amundson.

A few years ago, Amundson took a class offered by the La Crosse County Tavern League, which has trained more than a thousand local bartenders how to interact with a customer who's had too much to drink and when to stop serving them.

"Don't wait on them. Just kind of walk along like you don't notice their glass is empty. Encourage them to have some snacks," said La Crosse County Tavern League President Mike Brown. "Or just flat out tell them, 'Take it easy a little while. I think you've have enough.'"

But the class is not a requirement.

Even though there's a state law saying it's illegal to sell or give alcohol to a person who's intoxicated, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke can't think of a case that's actually made it to court.

"We haven't had any cases like this in La Crosse County," said Gruenke.

He said one of the reasons is because the statute's definition of what it means to be intoxicated is so vague.

"It's almost impossible to prosecute. You'd have to have probably a video of the encounter, you'd have to establish how intoxicated the person was, establish the bartender knew that, and then be able to explain to a jury that they were too intoxicated without anybody really knowing what that really means," said Gruenke.

It's another gray area in what's already a difficult judgment call.

Brown said there are a lot of situations that make it difficult for bartenders to know if a customer has had too much.

One of the big ones is that a bartender never knows how many drinks a customer has had before coming to the bar. Brown said to save some cash, some people, especially young people, start drinking at home before they head out to a bar.

Brown also said the only class bartenders are required to take is usually online and does not train them how to interact with a customer who's had too much.

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