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.

Dram shop laws (so named because alcohol used to be sold by a unit of measurement called a "dram") 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. Most states that have dram shop laws imposed liability only in situations where the alcohol seller provided alcohol in an unlawful manner.

Believe it or not, before these kinds of laws were passed, courts generally prohibited lawsuits against sellers of alcoholic beverages (such as bars, restaurants, and liquor stores) related to the actions of intoxicated patrons. So, in some states that don't have dram shop laws, this continues to be the rule. In other words, courts in the states have stuck with the rationale that it's the consumption---rather than the providing—of alcohol that is the cause of intoxication-related accidents.

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.

How Do Dram Shop Laws Work?

Dram shop laws differ quite a bit by state. However, there are some common themes that many state laws share. For instance, it's fairly common for dram shop laws to impose liability on alcohol vendors where the vendor illegally provided alcohol to a person who was:

  • younger than the legal drinking age of 21, or
  • visibly or obviously intoxicated at the time.

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, and Hawaii are among the states that impose liability on alcohol vendors under both of these circumstances (providing alcohol to underage or intoxicated patrons).

However, the dram shop laws in some states impose liability under just one or the other of these two circumstances. For example, in California, dram shop liability attaches where a vendor provides alcohol to an underage person but not for serving a person who's already visibly intoxicated. And, in several other states, such as Connecticut, Indiana, and Iowa, there's dram shop liability for serving someone who's already drunk but not for serving underage patrons.

But not all states fit neatly into these categories. In Illinois, for instance, an injured party can sue the business that provided the alcohol to a person who later causes an accident regardless of whether the business did anything illegal in selling or serving the alcohol. There are also a handful of states—including Kansas, South Dakota, and Delaware—where injured parties are entirely prohibited from going after the person who sold or served the alcohol for damages.

Who Can Sue Under Dram Shop Laws?

Generally, the party who's injured by the intoxicated person can sue for damages under dram shop laws. But what if the injured party is the intoxicated person? In other words, if the intoxicated party is injured or killed in the accident, can he or she (or a representative such as a parent) sue the business that provided the alcohol?

The answer depends on what state you're in and the circumstances of the case. The laws of many states allow the intoxicated person or his or her representatives to sue an alcohol vendor only if the intoxicated person was underage. If, on the other hand, it was a case where a dram shop law applied because the alcohol vendor sold alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person who was of legal drinking age, the intoxicated person generally won't have a valid claim against the vendor.

How Hard Is it to Prove a Dram Shop Claim?

Typically, when you sue someone, you have to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" his or she was legally at fault. A preponderance of the evidence simply means more likely than not. Putting this together, to be successful with a legal claim for money damages, you need to prove the other party (the "defendant") more likely than not caused the damages or injuries.

In many states, the preponderance-of-evidence standard applies to proving a dram shop claim. But there are a few states that make it a little more difficult to prove these types of claims. These states require injured parties to provide dram shop claims with "clear and convincing" evidence. There isn't a consistent, precise definition of clear and convincing evidence. However, when describing this standard, courts often use terms like "highly probable." Simply put, the clear-and-convincing standard makes it harder for an injured person to recover from an alcohol vendor based on dram shop liability.

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