California Dram Shop and Social Host Liability Rules

When an intoxicated person causes an accident in California, can a third party be liable for providing the alcohol?

By , Attorney University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 5/04/2023

When an intoxicated person causes an accident, anyone who's injured can usually file a civil lawsuit against the wrongdoer. But can a business or private host who served the alcohol also be liable to the injured person? Each state has different laws that apply in this situation. These rules are often called "dram shop" laws (so named because alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a "dram") and "social host liability" laws.

California law generally doesn't allow an injured person to sue vendors or hosts when an intoxicated customer or guest causes an accident, but there are important exceptions.

What Is "Dram Shop" or "Social Host" Liability?

The idea behind "dram shop" or "social host" liability laws is that, when an intoxicated person causes an accident, legal responsibility is sometimes shared between:

  • the person who directly caused the injury, and
  • the vendor or social host who provided the alcohol to that person.

This makes a dram shop or social host liability lawsuit different from most personal injury cases, where the injured person only sues the person who directly caused the accident.

Take a car accident case, for example. Suppose Dora is driving and hits Perry, a cyclist, with her car. Perry, being the injured party, might then sue Dora for damages since she caused his injuries. But, in certain situations, Perry might also be able to sue the bar where Dora was drinking before she got behind the wheel. If the bar is liable under California's dram shop rules, it could have to compensate Perry for:

  • his economic damages (like his medical bills and the cost of replacing his bike), and
  • his non-economic damages (like his physical and mental pain and suffering caused by the accident).

How Does "Dram Shop" and "Social Host" Liability Work in California?

California law significantly limits hosts' and vendors' legal responsibility for alcohol-related accidents, but they can still be held liable if they serve alcohol to someone under 21 who goes on to injure someone.

California Civil Code section 1714 explicitly states that furnishing alcohol "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 by an intoxicated person." This law essentially shields California bars, restaurants, party hosts, and most others from potential liability for selling or furnishing alcohol to adult customers or guests. So, when can a host or business be held liable for an alcohol-related accident?

A Social Host Can Be Liable for Providing Alcohol to an Underage Drinker Who Then Injures Someone

Parents, guardians, and other adults take on legal responsibility when they "knowingly furnish" alcohol to people they know (or should know) are under 21 years of age. In this situation, the social host can be held liable for the actions of the intoxicated underage guest.

What does it mean to "knowingly furnish" alcohol? It doesn't mean that the adult has to actually hand someone a drink. For example, an adult could be liable if they invite minors to a party and, knowing that some of their guests are under 21, encourage everyone to help themselves to beer from the refrigerator.

On the other hand, let's say that, before leaving on a weekend trip, parents tell their child not to open the liquor cabinet or have friends over to visit. The child ignores these rules, opens the liquor cabinet, and invites friends over to drink. In this scenario the parents likely couldn't be held responsible under California's social host liability law, because they didn't "knowingly furnish" the alcohol to anyone.

Note that, if a host does knowingly furnish alcohol to someone under 21, that host's liability extends to:

  • injuries and other damages suffered by the underage drinker, and
  • injuries and other damages the underage drinker inflicts on others.

So, for example, if an adult knowingly serves drinks to a 20-year-old guest, and the guest hits another vehicle in a DUI car accident, then the adult could be legally responsible for damage to both vehicles, and for injuries to everyone in both cars.

A Person or Business Can Be Liable for Providing Alcohol to an Obviously Intoxicated Underage Drinker Who Then Injures Someone

The second exception to California's general rule is in California Business & Professions Code section 25602.1.

The main purpose of this exception is to allow lawsuits against businesses (and their employees) that:

  • are licensed to serve alcohol (for example—bars, liquor stores and restaurants), and
  • provide alcohol to minors who are obviously intoxicated.

So, let's say that 19-year-old Dennis goes to a bar where no one checks his ID on the way in. He's served drinks by Dan the bartender, who continues to serve Dennis drinks even when he starts slurring his words and stumbling as he walks. Dennis later tries to drive home, but rear-ends Penny's vehicle as he's leaving the parking lot. In this scenario Penny might be able to successfully sue Dennis (for directly causing the accident) and Dan and the bar (for serving Dennis even though he was a minor and obviously intoxicated).

Section 25602.1 can sometimes apply to people who aren't licensed to serve alcohol, if they sell it to obviously intoxicated minors. For example, if Dave brings a bottle of liquor to a party and sells shots to people who are clearly drunk and under 21, he could be held liable if one of those people later causes an accident.

Learn More About Alcohol-Related Accidents and Lawsuits

You can read more about how liability works in alcohol-related accidents, and about possible criminal penalties for driving under the influence. If you have specific questions about your own situation, it may be helpful to speak with an attorney who has experience handling injury cases where alcohol is a factor. You can get started by making sure you know what to ask to find the right attorney for your case.

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