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

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

In most personal injury cases, there are two main parties: the injured plaintiff, and the defendant who allegedly caused the injury. In a "dram shop" case, however, the injured plaintiff may be able to seek compensation not from the person who caused the injury directly, but from the vendor or social host who provided alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, who then injured the plaintiff.

In this article, we'll examine some key points of Colorado dram shop law, including who may be held liable, what damages are available, and how long an injured person has to file a dram shop claim in civil court. (Historical note: "Dram shop" laws are so named because alcohol was once commonly sold by a unit of measure known as a "dram.")

What is Colorado's Dram Shop Law?

Colorado's dram shop law appears in Colorado Revised Statutes section 12-47-801, which states that "licensees" -- businesses licensed to sell alcohol in Colorado -- may be held liable if they sell or give alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor under age 21, who then causes injury to someone else.

So, when might Colorado's dram shop law apply? Suppose that Don is drinking at Nick's Nightclub. He's slurring his words, has trouble holding his glass, and even falls off his barstool, but Nick, the bartender, keeps serving him drinks nonetheless. Eventually, Don stumbles toward the door, but as he's leaving he runs into Pamela. Pamela is knocked to the ground when Don collides with her and she falls, suffering injuries. Pamela may choose to sue Don for her injuries, but she may also file a dram shop claim against Nick's Nightclub as well. Pamela would also have a case if Don were a minor under age 21, even if he were not visibly intoxicated.

Under Colorado's dram shop law, the injury caused does not have to be a foreseeable consequence of alcohol consumption in order for the vendor to be held liable. In 2011, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the vendor is liable when it sells or gives the alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor, even if the injury that person then causes is not a "foreseeable" cause of intoxication. In the above example, Nick's Nightclub may be held liable whether or not a reasonable person would have predicted that Don, while drunk, might knock Pamela to the ground.

Vendor vs. Social Host Liability in Colorado

Colorado's dram shop law holds alcohol vendors (such as bars and liquor stores) liable if they sell alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor. However, the liability rules are different when a social host serves alcohol in a private setting, like at a party.

Under Colorado law, a social host may not be held liable for injuries caused by an adult who is 21 or older, even if the host continued to serve alcohol after the adult became visibly intoxicated. However, a social host may be held liable for injuries caused by a minor if the host knowingly served alcohol to the minor or knowingly provided a place for the minor to drink alcohol.

Here's an example of Colorado's social host liability at work. Suppose that Hannah, the host, throws a pool party at which she serves beer. Among her guests are Adam, an adult friend from work, and Minnie, Adam's 15-year-old daughter. Although Adam drinks several beers and becomes visibly drunk, Hannah continues to give him drinks. During the party, Hannah sees Minnie raiding the beer cooler and then disappearing into the basement, but she says nothing. Later that night, Adam and Minnie are running across the pool deck when they bump into Pat. Pat falls down the deck stairs and is injured.

In this situation, Pat cannot file a dram shop case against Hannah for the injuries Adam caused. Even though Adam was visibly drunk, he was also an adult, and social hosts cannot be held liable when they serve alcohol to adults who then cause injury. However, Pat may have a dram shop claim against Hannah for the injuries caused by Minnie, because Minnie is a minor and Hannah provided Minnie with alcohol and a place to consume it.

Damages and Time Limits for Filing Colorado Dram Shop Cases

Damages in a Colorado dram shop case are typically available for the quantifiable losses caused by the intoxicated person's or minor's behavior. They generally include compensation for things like medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In Colorado, damages in dram shop cases are "capped," or limited, to a total of $150,000.

Colorado also sets a specific time limit on filing dram shop lawsuits. This "statute of limitations" requires that a potential plaintiff get their lawsuit filed within one year of the date of injury. Typically, a claim filed against the person who caused the injuries directly will not affect the running of the one-year statute of limitations, although it is best to speak to an attorney with experience in Colorado dram shop law to determine how state laws might affect your legal rights.

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