When a drunk driving accident happens, it might seem obvious to place the blame on the intoxicated driver. However, other parties besides the drunk driver may share responsibility for the accident. In certain cases, injured victims of drunk driving crashes may be able to sue a bar or another establishment that has knowingly overserved a patron. If you suffered injuries or lost a loved one in a drunk driving accident an intoxicated person caused, you should understand all about dram shop law and how you can hold the establishment that served them liable. An experienced DUI accident lawyer can help you determine legal liability and explore your options to seek compensation. Get a risk-free consultation from one of our dram shop attorneys to get the legal representation you need.
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What is Dram Shop Law?
"Dram" comes from the British word "drachm," a unit of volume used in apothecary measurements. Over time, it grew to refer to liquor, particularly whiskey and gin. Bars and taverns known for selling liquor in small increments were then called "dram shops." Dram shop laws date back to the 19th century's temperance movement, the precursor to Prohibition. Restaurant owners, club owners, bar owners, and other alcohol-serving establishments may be liable if a patron who drank at their establishment got behind the wheel and caused a drunk driving accident. Dram shop law allows individuals injured in drunk driving accidents to place blame on an establishment that served alcoholic beverages — if an intoxicated patron served there caused an accident. Long story short, if a drunk driver hits you, it is possible for you to sue the bar he came from. Don't overlook this route when you're pursuing compensation after a drunk driving accident. There are two types of dram shop cases:
First-Party Dram Shop CasesBelieve it or not, in some states, a drunk driver can sue the bar they just came from. In a first-party dram shop case, if a person was intoxicated while they were injured in an accident they caused, they can sue the establishment where they were served alcohol. These cases can be an uphill battle, especially if they go to trial, because judges and juries tend to view this as an issue of personal responsibility. Single-vehicle accidents — where only the drunk driver was harmed — have better chances of success than multi-vehicle accidents.
Third-Party Dram Shop CasesThird-party dram shop cases are far more common than first-party dram shop cases. In a third-party dram shop case, victims hit by a drunk driver or passengers who were riding with a drunk driver can file a claim against the bar that served the driver earlier that night. To clarify, here’s a hypothetical accident: Jane is overserved at a bar and gets into a car accident with Tim as she is leaving. Both of them could file suit against the bar. Jane would be the first-party claimant and Tim would be the third-party claimant.
Dram Shop Law & MinorsThe federal minimum drinking age was raised to 21 years old in 1984. Before that, it varied from state to state, with New York, California, and Ohio setting the legal drinking age as low as 16. Today, dram shop law comes into play if an establishment serves alcohol to a minor. In Texas and New Jersey, if a minor was served alcohol and then got into an accident of any kind, the minor or their legal guardians can sue the bar for damages. This would be another example of a first-party dram shop case.
Who is Liable Under Dram Shop Law?Dram shop laws permit lawsuits against any business that overserves alcohol to a drunk driver. Under dram shop law, the owners of the following establishments can potentially be held liable:
Evidence in a Dram Shop CaseClaimants in a dram shop case must prove the establishment in question was negligent. This means proving the establishment’s owner or employees knew — or reasonably should have known — a patron was intoxicated, but kept serving them anyway. Evidence in a dram shop case may include:
- Witness testimony
- Social media posts
- Surveillance footage of the patron behaving visibly intoxicated
- Other video sources, like camera phones or social media feeds
- Police accident reports, breathalyzer results, and field sobriety test results
- Receipts or records of credit card charges showing how many drinks were purchased
Damages in a Dram Shop CaseDrunk driving accidents often cause serious injuries. When you mix booze, speeding, and poor visibility, head-on collisions and totaled cars aren’t uncommon results. While your first course of action is to pursue compensation from the drunk driver's auto insurance company, you may have other options. If a drunk driver who hit you was overserved at a bar and does not have adequate coverage — or any insurance at all — dram shop law can help you recover. Damages from drunk driving accidents may include:
- Medical bills for surgeries, diagnostic imaging, ambulance rides, and more
- Prescription medications
- Physical therapy
- Mobility aids like wheelchairs
- Home renovations (wheelchair ramps, grab bars, etc.)
- Lost wages and lost earning potential
- Property damage and auto repair
- Rental vehicles
- Pain and suffering
- Disability or disfigurement
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Funeral and burial expenses, in the event of a fatal drunk driving accident
Beware: some states limit the amount of compensation a claimant can get from a dram shop case. A car accident lawyer can help you develop the best strategy for recovering maximum compensation for your injuries caused by an intoxicated individual and/or the establishment that served them.
Statutes of Limitations for Dram Shop CasesSome states require injured victims to give formal written notice of their dram shop claim. Time limits for providing this mandatory notice can be as short as 60 days. Statutes of limitations for dram shop cases and other car accident cases vary from state to state. For more guidance on what deadlines you’ll need to meet, consult a drunk driving accident attorney.
Social Host LiabilityIn addition to dram shop laws, some states have social host liability laws. Social host liability laws are quite similar to dram shop laws, but instead of bars, they apply to homeowners or private party hosts who over-serve their guests. Some hosts can even purchase "party insurance" or event liability insurance to protect them against claims arising from injuries others sustained on their premises or as a result of a drunk driver causing a serious accident.
Dram Shop Laws by StateDram shop laws are established at the state level, not by the federal government. Therefore, dram shop law definition varies from state to state. Below are brief overviews of dram shop laws in the areas where our law firm currently has physical offices.
Dram Shop Law in Texas
According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, a bar or retailer is liable if it sold, served, or otherwise provided an alcoholic beverage to a customer who was “obviously intoxicated to the extent that he presented a clear danger to themself and others” and that customer went on to cause injuries and property damage due to intoxication.
Although the Texas Dram Shop Act provides ways for people to hold alcohol-serving establishments liable, the state also allows for the so-called safe harbor defense. This allows commercial establishments that sell alcohol to avoid liability if they can show that they trained their employees on responsible alcohol serving practices, didn't promote excessive drinking, or didn't knowingly over-serve intoxicated customers or serve alcohol to patrons under 21.
Dram shop liability is still subject to the limitations of comparative responsibility in Texas. For example, if a drunk driver is found to be more than 51% responsible for an accident, the bar or restaurant would be totally absolved of liability. Additionally, Texas does not have any liability for social hosts, unless the host has given alcohol to a minor who is not their own child. After a notable dram shop lawsuit in 1983, Texas experienced a 6.5% decrease in single-vehicle nighttime accidents that caused injury, with a 5.8% decrease the following year.
Dram Shop Law in LouisianaLouisiana does not have dram shop laws. In fact, Louisiana law actually protects establishments and social hosts from liability. Under Louisiana law:
- Consuming alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injury and property damage, not serving beverages to another.
- Businesses or employees who sell or serve alcohol are not liable for injury, death, or property damage caused by an intoxicated person.
- Social hosts who serve or supply alcohol to their guests cannot be held liable for injury, death, or property damage caused by an intoxicated person.
- A business, employee, or social host serves alcohol to a minor
- Someone forces someone else to consume alcoholic beverages
- A business or employee claims an alcoholic beverage is non-alcoholic, misleading a customer
Dram Shop Law in CaliforniaCalifornia Civil Code section 1714 limits third-party liability for drunk driving accidents by stating "the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries." However, there are exceptions. One is when any parent, guardian, or other adult, at their place of residence, knowingly provides alcohol to anyone below 21 years of age. In this case, the adult can be held liable for any damage done by the minor, to themself or others. Another exception is when a business provides alcohol “to any obviously intoxicated minor.” Furthermore, per California Business & Professions Code §25602, it is a misdemeanor to sell, give away, or otherwise provide an alcoholic beverage to:
- any “habitual or common drunkard”
- any “obviously intoxicated person"
Dram Shop Law in GeorgiaGeorgia’s dram shop law can be found in Section 51-1-40 of the Georgia Code. It states that in general, the consumption of alcohol, not the sale or furnishing of alcohol, “is the proximate cause of any injury, including death and property damage, inflicted by an intoxicated person upon himself or upon another person.” However, Georgia’s dram shop law is a little more specific than other states in that it’s all about context. It only holds businesses, servers, and social hosts liable if:
- they serve alcohol to a minor without a parent’s permission
- they serve alcohol to a noticeably intoxicated person, knowing that the person “will soon be driving a motor vehicle”