When an intoxicated person causes harm to someone else, state laws often hold the intoxicated person responsible. Many states also have passed “dram shop” laws, which can be used to hold an individual or business responsible for giving or selling alcohol to an intoxicated person who ends up causing harm to a third party. (Historical note: alcoholic drinks were traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a “dram.”) A number of states have also passed similar laws that apply to people who provide alcohol for free, like social hosts.
In this article, we’ll discuss the specifics of dram shop and social host liability law in Alabama.
Under Alabama Code Section 6-5-71, a person who is injured “by any intoxicated person or in consequence of the intoxication of any person” may file a lawsuit against any person or business that provided alcohol to the intoxicated person “contrary to the provisions of law.”
A typical personal injury lawsuit involves two parties: the injured person (the “plaintiff”), and the party that allegedly caused the injury (the “defendant). Dram shop cases are unique in that they bring in a third party: a person or business that provided alcohol to someone when it was not reasonable to do so.
For example, suppose that Dan gets behind the wheel and hits Penny, a pedestrian, injuring her. Dan had just come from Bill’s Bar, where the bartender had continued serving Dan even after Dan was clearly intoxicated. Penny may choose to file a personal injury lawsuit against Dan, seeking damages for her injuries. But she may also choose to file a dram shop claim against Bill’s Bar.
Here, Bill’s Bar may be liable because the bartender continued to serve Dan alcohol after he was clearly drunk. The law won’t apply to every situation where a bar serves alcohol to a patron who ends up injuring someone, however. The key portion of Alabama's dram shop statute is the phrase “contrary to the provisions of law.” The Alabama Supreme Court has interpreted this phrase to include situations in which alcohol is served contrary to the provisions of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board, which prohibits serving alcohol to a person who “appears, considering the totality of the circumstances, to be intoxicated.”
In the above example, the bar may be held liable for injuries after selling alcohol to a visibly intoxicated driver. This type of liability is known as “vendor” liability. Those who provide alcohol for free may also be liable if they provide it “contrary to the provisions of law.” This is known as “social host” liability.
For example, suppose that in the above example, Dan is driving home from a party, where the host (Henry) provided an open bar. Dan is 19 years old and has a valid Alabama driver’s license, but he is not old enough to drink legally. Henry may still be liable for Penny’s injuries under Alabama’s “social host” laws because the alcohol was provided contrary to the state’s laws on legal drinking age.
Because social hosts do not sell alcohol, they are not bound by the rules of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage control board. However, state law still requires social hosts to stop serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated guests. State law also prohibits both vendors and social hosts from serving alcohol to minors under age 21.
Important note: Dram shop and social liability laws do not allow a person who is injured through their own intoxication to seek damages from the vendor or host who provided the alcohol. For instance, if a bar patron or a party guest becomes drunk and falls off the edge of a deck, suffering injury, the patron or guest may not seek compensation from the owner of the property. (There may be a case under premises liability law, however, if the deck was unreasonably dangerous.)
Alabama law allows those who bring a successful dram shop claim to obtain both "actual" and "exemplary" damages. “Actual” damages are meant to compensate the injured person for the quantifiable losses caused by the intoxicated person’s actions. For instance, Penny (the injured pedestrian in the above example) might be able to recover actual damages for losses like:
In addition to “actual” damages -- which does not include compensation for non-economic losses like “pain and suffering” -- the injured party may seek “exemplary” damages (also known as “punitive” damages). Unlike actual damages, punitive damages are not intended to compensate an injured person for losses. Instead, they are intended to punish bad behavior -- which could include serving alcohol contrary to law -- and to send a message that similar behavior won't be tolerated.
Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.
Alabama's statute of limitations sets a deadline for filing personal injury claims in court. The deadline also applies to dram shop and social host liability cases. The statute requires that the case be filed in court within two years of the date of injury. If the case is not filed within the time limit, the court will almost certainly refuse to consider it.
Typically, the filing of a related personal injury claim does not affect the statute of limitations for a dram shop claim. For example, if an injured pedestrian files a personal injury claim against a drunk driver who injures her in a crash, she still must file her dram shop claim against the bar within two years of the date of injury.