California Dram Shop and Social Host Liability Rules

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

Each state has different rules for potential civil lawsuits against vendors or social hosts who provide alcohol to someone who, in an alcohol-related accident, ends up causing bodily harm -- either to themselves or to a third party. "Dram shop" laws (so named because alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a "dram") come into play in situations like this, as do "social host" laws.

In this article, we'll discuss California's laws when it comes to third-party liability for alcohol-related accidents.

What is California's Dram Shop/Social Host Law?

Most personal injury cases involve two parties: the person who is injured, and the person or company that allegedly caused the injury. For example, a traditional personal injury case might involve a car accident: Dora might be driving her car when she hits Perry, a cyclist, and Perry might then sue Dora for damages (compensation for his injuries, pain and suffering, and other losses).

In a "dram shop" or "social host" liability case, however, the injured person seeks damages not from the person who directly caused the injury, but from an alcohol vendor or host who sold or gave alcohol to the person who caused the injury.

California law significantly limits third-party liability for alcohol-related accidents. In fact, California Civil Code section 1714 explicitly states that "the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another California Dram Shop and by an intoxicated person."

(Learn more about proximate cause in a car accident case.)

With this statement, California lawmakers have essentially absolved bars, restaurants, party hosts, and most others of potential liability for selling or furnishing alcohol to customers and guests, in most (but not all) situations.

Exceptions to "No Civil Liability" in California

There are at least two notable exceptions to California's statutory prohibition against civil liability for those who sell or provide alcohol to others.

The first exception, codified at California Civil Code section 1714, applies when any parent, guardian, or other adult, at his or her residence, knowingly furnishes alcohol to a person who the host knows (or should know) is under 21 years of age. In that situation, when the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the "proximate cause" of resulting injuries or death, the host may be liable.

Note that, under this exception, the host's liability for damages extends to any injuries suffered by the underage drinker him/herself, and to anyone injured by the underage drinker (in a DUI car accident, for example).

Second, when a business is licensed to sell alcohol (or when the business is required to be licensed in order to sell it), and that business sells, gives away, or otherwise provides alcohol "to any obviously intoxicated minor," the business can be held civilly liable for any resulting harm, as long as the provision of alcohol to the minor was a "proximate cause" of the injury or death. That exception can be found at California Business & Professions Code section 25602.1.

Damages in California Dram Shop Cases

Suppose that Tanda's Tavern serves several drinks to Dorian, a 17-year-old celebrating the successful completion of his junior year of high school. The bartender knows Dorian just turned 17, and the tavern keeps serving Dorian drinks even after he begins to slur his words and falls off his bar stool. On his way out of the tavern, Dorian stumbles into Penny, knocking her down the tavern's front steps and injuring her.

In this situation, under California law Penny may seek damages from Tanda's Tavern for losses like:

  • medical bills, including the costs of emergency care, surgery, hospitalization, and rehabilitation
  • the value of lost wages
  • if the injury causes permanent disability, the value of wages and benefits that would reasonably have been earned if the disability had not occurred
  • the costs to repair or replace any damaged property, and
  • damages for the pain and suffering she endured.

These are common types of damages available in a civil lawsuit. But remember that in California, these damages are only available when an exception to dram shop/social host liability applies (as in the example we laid out above). For other cases in which a vendor or social host serves alcohol to a person who then injures another, the injured person may not seek civil damages from the vendor or social host, but may always seek damages directly from the intoxicated person who caused the injury.

Criminal Liability for Provision of Alcohol in California

California makes it a misdemeanor offense for any person to sell, give away, or otherwise provide an alcoholic beverage to:

But note that this statute only exposes the offender (the person who sold or provided the alcohol) to criminal liability. That means the offender can be charged with a crime (specifically, a misdemeanor) and if convicted can be made to pay a fine, or face incarceration, or be subject to any number of other criminal sanctions. As we discussed in the previous sections, it's a different story when it comes to a third party's civil liability for alcohol-related accidents in California.

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