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 when vendors and social hosts who provide alcohol can be held liable for the actions of an intoxicated customer or guest, respectively. These types of liability 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. Here's what California law says about the liability of alcohol providers when someone is harmed by an intoxicated person in an alcohol-related accident.

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

Most personal injury cases involve two parties: the person who is injured and the person who allegedly caused the injury. 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 (compensation for his injuries, pain and suffering, and other losses) since she caused his injuries.

Alcohol Providers Generally Aren't Liable

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 social host who provided the alcohol to the person who directly caused the injury.

California law significantly limits third-party liability for alcohol-related accidents. In fact, 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."

With this law, California lawmakers have essentially absolved bars, restaurants, party hosts, and most others of potential liability for selling or furnishing alcohol to customers and guests. However, a few exceptions to this general rule exist and are discussed below.

The Few Situations Where Alcohol Providers Are Liable

There are at least two notable exceptions to California's statutory prohibition against civil liability for those who sell or provide alcohol to others. Both exceptions have to do with providing alcohol to underage drinkers.

The first exception applies when a 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 this situation, the social host can be held liable for the actions of the intoxicated underage guest. 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).

The second exception is in California Business & Professions Code section 25602.1 and applies to those who are licensed to sell, provide, or serve alcohol—bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and the like. When a person working at one of these businesses provides alcohol to an "obviously intoxicated minor," the person can be held liable (the "proximate cause") of injuries or deaths caused by the intoxicated minor.

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 might 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 these damages are available only when an exception to dram shop/social host liability limits 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 can't seek civil damages from the vendor or social host, but can always seek damages directly from the intoxicated person who caused the injury.

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