Can a bar be sued for selling alcohol to a drunk driver?

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Question:

Can a bar be sued for selling alcohol to a drunk driver?

Answer:

In a lot of states, it is at least a possibility. Under “dram shop” laws, a bar, restaurant, liquor store, or other licensed vendor of alcohol may find itself facing a civil lawsuit for damages if they sell alcohol to someone who goes on to injure a third party in an alcohol-related accident. (These laws get their name from the fact that alcohol used to be sold by a unit of measure called a “dram.”)

But even in states that have a dram shop law on the books, a vendor’s liability is not automatic simply because a customer consumes alcohol bought from the vendor, and ends up causing an accident. Instead, the vendor’s liability depends on the specific language of the statute, compared with the specific facts of the situation.

In some states, the vendor may be on the legal hook if the customer is “obviously intoxicated” and the establishment continues to serve that person anyway, or if the person is under the legal drinking age.

Other states require that the business know (or have reasonable grounds to know) that the customer is likely to drive a vehicle after consuming the alcohol.    

In still other states, the bar or other establishment must have some level of knowledge that the customer is a “habitual drunkard.” For example, perhaps a regular customer has a reputation for driving home after having had one too many drinks. Maybe the bartender even knows that the customer has been convicted of DUI on at least one occasion.

Finally, it’s important to note that dram shop claims can usually only be brought by someone who is injured by the intoxicated person. These are called “third party” claims. The intoxicated person cannot typically bring a “first party” dram shop claim against the vendor who sold the alcohol.

Learn more: Dram Shop Laws: Can I Sue a Bar After an Alcohol-Related Accident?

by: David Goguen, J.D.

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