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

Bars, restaurants, and liquor stores may be on the legal hook after an alcohol-related accident.

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Dram shop laws are state statutes that impose liability on sellers of alcoholic beverages for the negligent acts of their intoxicated customers. Most, but not all, state legislatures have passed some version of a dram shop law.

Believe it or not, before these kinds of laws were passed, courts generally prohibited lawsuits against sellers of alcoholic beverages such as bars, restaurants or liquor stores. The argument used to be that the serving of the alcohol did not actually cause the plaintiff’s injuries. (One more historical note: "Dram shop" laws are so named because alcohol used to be sold by a unit of measure called a "dram.")

In this article, we'll discuss the different types of dram shop cases, and key legal issues that are often triggered by these kinds of civil claims after an alcohol-related accident.

What is a "Dram Shop" Case?

So, a dram shop case is a lawsuit against a bar, restaurant, liquor store, or any other type of business that sells alcoholic drinks. The establishment's liability in these kinds of cases is based on the fact that someone was served too much alcohol.

There are two types of dram shop cases, what are called “first party” dram shop cases and what are called “third party” dram shop cases. With the caveat that most states don't allow “first party” dram shop cases, let’s look at these two types of cases in a little more detail.

First Party Dram Shop Cases

A “first party” dram shop case is a case where it is the intoxicated person who got hurt and is suing the bar or restaurant for serving him/her too much alcohol. As previously stated, some states don't allow these kinds of cases -- presumably on the grounds that people should be personally responsible for how much they drink.

Other states only ban adults from bringing “first party” dram shop cases; minors are still allowed to bring them. The logic here is that minors are not allowed to drink alcohol legally, so if a minor was drinking alcohol, someone has broken the law.

However, just because “first party” dram shop cases might be allowed in a particular state does not mean that they are worth bringing, especially by an adult. These cases are very hard to win because it’s very hard to convince a jury that they should give an adult money because he/she went out, drank too much, and got hurt.

Third Party Dram Shop Cases

A “third party” dram shop case is when the intoxicated person injures someone else. An example of a “third party” dram shop case is when someone gets drunk at a bar or restaurant and gets into a car accident, and the person hurt by the driver files a claim against the bar or restaurant (the business establishment is the "third party" in this situation). Most states allow “third party” dram shop cases, but most states also differ on what the injured person needs to prove, which brings us to our next section.

Proving Liability in a Dram Shop Case

Most types of injury cases are based on negligence. For example, in order to win a car accident case, you have to prove that the other driver was negligent, meaning that the other driver acted unreasonably.

In contrast, dram shop cases are not always based on negligence. Liability in dram shop cases can also be based on recklessness or even intentional conduct, depending on the individual state’s law. Let’s look at these two conduct thresholds in a little more detail.

Recklessness

A reckless action is when a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that something unsafe will happen. Basically, if you knew or should have known that an action was likely to be unreasonably safe, but you went ahead and did that action anyway, you have acted recklessly.

In the context of a dram shop case, a server acts recklessly if:

  • they intentionally serve alcohol to a patron
  • they know that the patron is a minor or is visibly intoxicated, and
  • they consciously disregard an obvious and substantial risk that serving liquor to that patron will cause physical harm to the patron or to others.

An obvious example of recklessness in a dram shop case would be when a patron staggers up to the bar, with a clear smell of alcohol on his/her breath, and orders an alcoholic drink. In that case, any reasonable server should know that the patron was visibly intoxicated, and choosing to serve them anyway may arise to recklessness.

Intentional Conduct

Some states have drafted very limited liability into their dram shop statutes. They only allow dram shop cases in situations of intentional conduct, and often involving only injuries to minors or hard-core alcoholics.

For example, a state might only allow dram shop claims in situations where the server willfully and unlawfully sold or gave alcohol to a minor, or where the server knowingly served a person habitually addicted to the use of alcoholic beverages.

Other states restrict dram shop claims even further. In cases of minors, some states only allow dram shop claims to be brought in situations where the server knowingly provided alcohol to the minor, knowing that the minor will soon be driving a motor vehicle. That means that, in those states, if a minor walks into a bar, gets drunk, and gets into a car accident, the bar would only be liable if the server knew (not “knew or should have known,” but actually knew) that the minor would soon be driving.

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