Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents in Iowa

When an intoxicated person injures someone else in Iowa, can a third party be liable for providing the alcohol?

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In every U.S. state, if you're injured by someone who is intoxicated, you can bring a personal injury claim against that person. But many states, including Iowa, also have laws that allow an injured person to hold an alcohol vendor or liable if the vendor provides alcohol to a person who then injures someone else.

In this article, we'll examine the current state of laws in Iowa when it comes to third-party liability for alcohol related accidents (the "third party" being the provider of alcohol).

What is the Iowa Dram Shop Act?

The Iowa Dram Shop Act appears at Iowa Code section 123.92, and it essentially states that a vendor with a license or permit to sell alcohol may be held liable for injuries to Person A, if the vendor sold or served alcohol to Person B, who caused Person A's injuries. The vendor is liable in this situation if Person B was intoxicated or appeared to be intoxicated at the time the alcohol was sold or served.

In most injury cases, there are two main parties: the injured person (the plaintiff), and the person who allegedly caused the injuries. In a dram shop case, however, there are three parties: the injured plaintiff, the person who caused the injuries directly, and the vendor of the alcohol. Here's an example illustrating how Iowa's dram shop law might affect each of these parties:

Suppose that, after a hard day at work, Drake stops by Benny's Bar for a few drinks. The bartender, Benny, notices that Drake is becoming increasingly intoxicated with each drink, but Benny continues to serve Drake anyway. After several drinks, Drake gets off his bar stool and heads for the bathroom. On the way, he stumbles into Pamela, knocking her to the floor and injuring her.

Pamela may bring a personal injury claim against Drake for causing her injuries. Under Iowa's dram shop law, she may also bring a claim against Benny's Bar for continuing to serve Drake alcohol even though he was intoxicated, because Drake's intoxication can be seen as a proximate or "foreseeable" cause of the accident that caused Pamela's injuries.

Drake, however, may not bring a dram shop claim against Bennie's Bar, even if he was also injured in the accident. (Note that it would be a different story if he fell because the floor was in an unreasonably dangerous condition. In that situation, Drake may be able to bring a premises liability claim against the bar).

One factor that will prevent an injured plaintiff from recovering in a dram shop claim in Iowa is "complicity." Complicity occurs when the injured person has "encouraged or voluntarily participated to a material and substantial extent" in the drinking that led to the intoxication of the person who caused the injuries. In the example above, Pamela has a dram shop claim if she was just another patron of the bar who was in Drake's way when he stumbled. If Pamela was the one buying Drake's drinks, or if she was sitting next to him and matching him drink for drink, her dram shop claim may be barred by "complicity."

No "Social Host" Liability in Iowa

Iowa's dram shop laws apply to vendors who have a license or a permit to sell alcohol in the state. However, the same law does not apply to social hosts who serve alcohol at parties or other events. In fact, Iowa Code section 123.49 specifies that social hosts who provide alcohol to guests cannot be held liable if a guest consumes the alcohol and then injures another person as a result of intoxication.

For example, suppose that instead of heading to Benny's Bar after work, Drake went to a backyard barbecue at the home of one of his friends, Harold. During the party, Drake had several drinks, then stumbled onto the deck, where he tripped and fell, knocking Pamela off the deck and injuring her. In this situation, Pamela cannot bring an claim against Harold, because Harold is a social host, not an alcohol vendor. She can still bring a personal injury claim against Drake, however, and she may also have a premises liability claim if the deck was unreasonably dangerous -- for example, if she fell because the deck's railing gave way.

Damages and Time Limits in Iowa Dram Shop Claims

Dram shop claims are civil lawsuits, which means that liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages meant to compensate the injured person for his or her losses, including medical bills, lost wages, damaged property, and pain and suffering. Learn more about Personal Injury Damages.

Iowa has several specific time limits that apply to dram shop cases. First, Iowa requires that the alcohol vendor being sued in a dram shop claim receive notice of the claim within six months of the date of injury. This notice must contain specific information about the parties involved, the date of the claim, the events that led to the injury, and other items. If the notice is not provided within six months, the dram shop claim may not be filed in court.

The dram shop claim itself must be filed in court within two years of the date notice is served under the state's "statute of limitations." If the claim is not filed within this time, the court will refuse to hear it.

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