Bars, restaurants and other licensed establishments can often be held accountable for serving patrons in violation of state law. In the wake of a drunk driving accident, some victims and families may be able to file a dram shop lawsuit for compensation.
- Serving a visibly intoxicated patron
- Serving alcohol to a minor
- Licensed establishments and social hosts
Were you or a loved one injured or killed in a DWI accident? Our experienced dram shop attorneys can help. Learn more about your legal options today in a free consultation.
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Drunk driving is a serious crime, one accompanied by strict penalties in most states. It's not hard to see why. Every year, around one-third of all deaths in car accidents are attributed to alcohol impairment. We need to keep intoxicated people off the road. In that light, dram shop laws make a lot of sense. It's illegal for bars, restaurants and other licensed establishments to over-serve their patrons.
When someone is visibly intoxicated, they should be cut off. That's the basic logic behind dram shop laws, which are enforced by every state in America. And licensed establishments that violate the law, continuing to serve intoxicated patrons, can be held accountable for doing so, both in criminal and civil lawsuits.
Dram Shop Lawsuits After A DWI Accident
Dram shop laws provide a degree of legal protection to people who are injured in drunk driving lawsuits, along with families who lost their loved one in an alcohol-related crash. If you can prove that the bar or restaurant where the driver got drunk was negligent in providing the alcohol, you and your family may be eligible to secure financial compensation.
The "visibility" of intoxication is an important point that we'll return to in a bit, but for now it's enough to recognize that bars and other licensed establishments shouldn't be serving alcohol to people who are already obviously drunk. If that person gets into a car and causes an accident, the victim or victims may have a negligence claim against the licensed establishment.
State Law Variations In Alcohol Service Liability
State laws, as you can imagine, vary on this topic. The basic idea behind a dram shop law is that licensed establishments who break the law can be held liable for the actions of their intoxicated patrons. The scope of this liability, however, can change depending on state alcohol laws, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In Hawaii, for example, bars and restaurants can't be held accountable for the actions of intoxicated adults. A bar that serves a minor (under the age of 18), on the other hand, could be sued if that minor goes on to hurt or kill other people in a car accident.
Unlike Hawaii, Iowa allows dram shop lawsuits that involve injuries caused by intoxicated adults and intoxicated minors. You should always check with your own state laws, along with a local attorney, before starting a legal action.
Convenience & Grocery Stores
Dram shop liability isn't always limited to bars, restaurants and other establishments that have a serving license. In many states, it's illegal for liquor stores (and grocery stores, in states where supermarkets are allowed to carry alcohol) to sell alcohol to minors and visibly intoxicated patrons.
So even though the customer may not be consuming the alcohol on the store's premises, the business could still be held liable for the customer's harmful actions.
Social Host Liability
And surprisingly, the same could be true for "social hosts," people who hold social gatherings at a private residence. A number of states recognize two forms of dram shop liability: "vendor" liability and "social host" liability.
We've already talked about vendor liability; it covers all of the businesses that have a legal right to serve or sell alcoholic beverages. But a limited amount of liability could also fall on the shoulders of people who throw house parties, office parties, weddings or otherwise provide alcohol in their homes or places of business.
Furnishing Minors With Alcohol
Most states recognize social host liability when it comes to serving minors, since it's illegal to provide (or "furnish") a minor with alcohol regardless of whether you have a liquor license. The same can't always be said for car accidents that involve intoxicated adults.
Most states recognize that adults who drive drunk should take personal responsibility for their actions, and thus limit the amount of liability that can be applied to a social hosts.
Indiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico and North Dakota are notable exceptions. In these four states, social host liability can be applied both for intoxicated minors and adults. In contrast, a few states, including Arizona, have passed specific statutes to eliminate social host liability for adults.
A Closer Look At Negligence
Negligence is a legal concept that comes into most personal injury lawsuits. It's also very important for many wrongful death claims. Since serving or selling alcohol can be dangerous, bars, restaurants and other licensed establishments owe the public a duty to provide alcohol in a reasonably safe manner.
Violating that duty, by providing alcohol in an unreasonable way, is negligent - it falls below the standard that we expect from businesses that offer alcohol to customers.
State Liquor Laws
In most dram shop lawsuits, the determination of negligence comes down to a violation of state liquor laws.
It's usually illegal to serve alcohol after closing time. It's almost always illegal to serve someone who is visibly intoxicated or, alternatively, to serve someone so much alcohol that intoxication was a foregone conclusion. It's always illegal to serve minors.
Violating any of these rules can be used in court as evidence of the establishment's negligence. And negligence opens the bar or restaurant to legal liability.
What Does "Visible" Intoxication Look Like?
Under various state laws, it's considered unreasonable to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. This is the moment when criminal drunk driving cases and civil lawsuits really diverge.
Criminal vs. Civil Standards
Criminal prosecutors have two basic options to convict someone of driving while intoxicated (DWI). The first, known as a "per se" charge, uses evidence that the driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was over the legal limit (usually 0.08%). To prove a per se DUI, the police don't actually have to prove that someone was visibly drunk, just that their BAC was at or above the legal limit.
The second sort of argument relies on evidence that the driver's ability to operate a vehicle was actually impaired by the introduction of alcohol or drugs.
To support a "per se" charge, prosecutors usually fall back on the results of blood or breath tests taken at the time of arrest. The impairment argument, in contrast, uses officer and witness testimony (to substantiate claims of erratic driving behavior, for example) and field test results.
Using Evidence To Prove A Case
Dram shop lawsuits only rely on these criminal forms of proof indirectly. To win a civil case, most plaintiffs will have to show that the patron was visibly drunk, not at the time of the accident, but even earlier, when the person was being served alcohol.
More specifically, you'll have to show that the drunk driver was served alcohol, despite being visibly intoxicated at the time of service. That can be difficult to prove.
Reconstructing The Event
In some sense, we all know what a drunk person looks like, but to win a case, your attorneys will have to piece together evidence and reconstruct the night of the accident. Most lawsuits rely on witness testimony, say from other patrons at the bar, to substantiate their claims of illegal service.
Bartenders and other servers are usually trained to notice the signs of intoxication. So if we can find someone else who noticed those signs, too, it helps build the case.
Video evidence of intoxication from the establishment's surveillance system, if available, can be extremely convincing. We can also gather bar receipts to show that, given the amount of alcohol the person purchased, there was no way for them to remain sober.
A newer source of evidence comes from social media sites. If the driver took pictures or videos of themselves at the bar, they could help to show that the person was drunk, but kept buying drinks.
Time Limits & Restrictions
You only have a limited amount of time to file a dram shop lawsuit. Wherever you live, there's a state law that restricts the time period in which personal injury claims can be filed.
These laws are known as "statutes of limitation" and, in some states, they can be really short. Connecticut, for example, provides only 1 year from the date of illegal service. Check with your local laws to make sure you don't miss this deadline. After the statute of limitations has run its course, your case will no longer be viable.