You're driving home from work one evening when suddenly, a drunk driver runs a red light and hits your car, causing you serious personal injuries. You bring a claim against the drunk driver but discover that they were driving without auto insurance. Unfortunately, you don't have uninsured motorist coverage. Are you out of luck?
Not necessarily. Colorado, like most states, has a liquor liability law. In limited circumstances, the law makes those who sell or provide alcohol, or who give underage drinkers a place to drink, legally responsible for any resulting injuries.
After a brief explanation of liquor liability laws in general, we'll take a closer look at Colorado's dram shop and social host liability statute.
In many states—including those that have liquor liability laws—the general rule is that there's no legal liability for selling or serving alcoholic beverages. The reason? Alcohol-related accidents, the thinking goes, are caused by drinking alcohol, not by selling it. This rule, while popular with alcohol sellers, often produces unfair results.
Because of the hardships this rule often caused, states began creating exceptions to the general rule of no liability. These exceptions fall into two categories:
Long ago, taverns sold liquor by a measurement called the "dram." The term "dram shop" stuck, and it's still used today to describe laws that hold liquor licensees—those licensed by the state to sell liquor to the public—responsible for injuries caused by their drunk customers. A typical dram shop law imposes liability for selling alcohol to underage or visibly intoxicated customers.
"Social host" is just a fancy legal term for someone who hosts a party or a social gathering. When the liquor flows freely, guests sometimes overindulge. Social host liability laws make the party host legally responsible for injuries caused by drunk party guests. In some states, social host liability only applies when alcohol is furnished to underage drinkers.
Colorado has one statute—Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801 (2023)—that covers both dram shop and social host liability. Like many states, Colorado observes the general rule of no liquor liability. Under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(1) (2023), alcohol-related accidents are treated as having been caused by drinking alcohol, not furnishing it.
The statute then carves out two exceptions to this nonliability rule: One for dram shops, and the second for social hosts.
A liquor licensee—any person or business licensed by the state to sell liquor to the public—is legally responsible for injuries caused by an intoxicated person if the licensee "willfully and knowingly sold or served any alcoholic beverage" to that person and the person was:
(Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(3)(a) (2023).)
The intoxicated person (or, if the person died, their estate) can't sue under Colorado's dram shop law. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(3)(b) (2023).)
Finally, the statute caps the compensation ("damages," in the language of the law) you can collect from the dram shop at $150,000. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(3)(c) (2023).) This cap is periodically adjusted for inflation. On January 1, 2020, the cap was raised to $368,260. Consult a Colorado attorney to learn about the cap that applies to your case.
Colorado's social host liability law is found at Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(4)(a) (2023). There's no liability for serving liquor to a guest who's at least 21 years old, even if the guest is visibly intoxicated. Instead, liability exists only when a social host knowingly:
Parents sometimes justify letting youngsters drink in their home by saying "I'd rather they drink here, with me around, so I know they're safe." Colorado's social host liability statute takes away that justification.
An underage drinker who ends up getting hurt (or if they're killed, their estate) can't sue the host under Colorado's social host liability law. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(4)(b) (2023).)
As with damages under the dram shop statute, damages against a social host can't exceed $150,000. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-3-801(4)(c) (2023).) Those damages, too, are periodically adjusted for inflation.
If you win a Colorado dram shop or social host liability case, you're entitled to collect damages for your injuries and losses. Most often, you can expect to receive compensatory damages. As the name suggests, these damages are meant to compensate you for such things as:
Keep in mind, though, that the damages you're allowed to collect will be limited by Colorado's damages cap, discussed above.
If you're unable to settle your claim and you need to file a lawsuit in court, you must file within the applicable deadline, called a "statute of limitations." The filing deadline in Colorado is short. You have just one year from the date the alcohol was sold or served, or from the date an underage drinker was provided a place to drink, to file your lawsuit in court. (See Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 44-3-801(3)(a)(II), 44-3-801(4)(a)(II) (2023).)
What happens if you try to file a lawsuit after the deadline has passed? Unless an exception applies, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case. You'll be barred from recovering any damages for your injuries.
Dram shop lawsuits can be deceptively complicated and difficult to win. In addition to understanding claim and lawsuit procedures, you need to understand how Colorado courts have interpreted and applied Colorado's liquor liability statute in previous cases like yours. It's easy to make a costly mistake.
Your best chance to succeed will come from having an experienced Colorado dram shop lawyer on your side. If you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you.