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

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 ends up causing harm to a third party. "Dram shop" laws come into play in situations like this (so named because alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a "dram.")

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 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 his injuries.

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

California law significantly limits dram shop liability. A vendor who provides alcohol to a person 21 years of age or older cannot be held liable for damages if the person then injures someone else, even if the person was obviously intoxicated at the time.  

The only exception to this rule appears in  California Business and Professions Code section 25602. Under this law, a civil case may be brought to court if an alcohol vendor continues to serve alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor, who then causes injury to someone else. This rule applies only to vendors licensed to sell alcohol in California, not to social hosts who provide alcohol at parties or other social events.

Criminal Liability for Providing Alcohol

Although California does not allow dram shop cases to be filed against alcohol vendors or social hosts if a person they served injures someone else, state law does make it a misdemeanor to sell, furnish, or give alcohol to a "habitual or common drunkard" or to an "obviously intoxicated" person. California law does not distinguish between vendors and social hosts in applying this criminal penalty -- either can be guilty of a misdemeanor if they violate the law.

There are some key distinctions to be made here. Prosecution of a misdemeanor is handled in the criminal courts. Penalties for conviction may include jail time, fines, probation, and other penalties assessed by the court. Dram shop cases are heard in civil court, and a defendant's liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages, which leads us to our next topic of discussion.

Damages in California Dram Shop Cases

Although California limits dram shop liability to businesses that provide alcohol to obviously intoxicated minors, those who are injured in these situations may seek compensation for a number of losses.

For example, suppose that Tanda's Tavern serves several drinks to Dorian, a 19-year-old celebrating the successful completion of his first year at college. The tavern keeps serving him 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, 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 in a civil dram shop claim if the intoxicated person is a minor whom the vendor or social host continued to serve even after he or she was obviously intoxicated. 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 seek damages directly from the intoxicated person who caused the injury.

Time Limits for Filing California Dram Shop Claims

Like other civil claims, dram shop cases in California are governed by the state's  statute of limitations, a law that sets a limit on when a case may be filed in the state's court system. A dram shop claim must be filed within  two years  of the date of injury.

Typically, the filing of an injury claim against the intoxicated person -- or the filing of a criminal charge by the prosecutor -- does not affect the statute of limitations on a dram shop claim. But it's always a good idea to discuss your case with an experienced attorney to make sure your legal rights are protected.

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