One evening while you're out driving, a drunk driver runs a light and hits your car, causing you serious injuries. When you investigate a possible personal injury claim, you learn that the drunk driver spent several hours drinking at a local bar, before leaving and trying to drive home. Can you sue the bar for over serving its customer?
In Connecticut, the answer is: Maybe, yes. In some circumstances, the state's liquor liability law lets you bring a claim for compensation ("damages," in lawyer-speak) against a liquor seller. After a quick introduction to liquor liability laws in general, we'll turn our attention to the particulars of Connecticut law.
As a general rule, absent a state statute or court decision that says otherwise, there's no liability (legal responsibility) for selling or serving alcoholic beverages to others, even if they're clearly drunk. Why? Alcohol-related accidents, the thinking goes, are caused by drinking alcohol, not by selling it.
Of course, there are exceptions. In every state, it's against the law to sell or serve intoxicants to underage drinkers. And most states have laws that permit a claim for damages, in some circumstances, against a person or business that sells or furnishes alcohol to a person who then injures others. These laws fall into two categories:
Named after the old slang term for bars and taverns—dram shop—a dram shop law typically applies to "liquor licensees," meaning retailers licensed by the state to sell alcoholic beverages to the public. When a licensee sells or serves alcohol to someone who then injures another person, a dram shop law lets the injured person sue the licensee for damages.
Most states have a dram shop law. But the law usually only applies when a licensee furnishes alcohol to an underage customer or a person who's clearly intoxicated.
"Social host" is legal-speak for a person who hosts a party or similar social get together. It's not unusual for liquor to flow freely at these events. Some party guests overindulge. When a drunk partygoer injures someone, a social host liability law makes the party host liable to the injured person for damages.
Several states have social host liability laws, though they're not as common as dram shop laws. Where they exist, these laws often only apply when the host furnishes alcohol to underage drinkers or lets them drink on the host's property.
You can find Connecticut's dram shop statute at Conn. Gen. Stat. § 30-102 (2024). It says that any person who sells liquor to an intoxicated person is responsible for paying damages to someone who's injured because of the intoxication.
As interpreted by the Connecticut Supreme Court, to have a claim under the state's dram shop statute there must be:
Visible or perceivable intoxication. Proof of blood alcohol content can be evidence of intoxication. But standing alone, it isn't proof of visible or perceivable intoxication. That requires showing the usual signs of being drunk, like slurred speech, walking, balance, or coordination problems, drowsiness or loss of consciousness, and the like.
Notice of intent to sue. Before filing a lawsuit, the injured person must give the seller written notice of their intent to sue. Notice must be provided within 120 days after the date of the injury. If the injured person dies or is incapacitated, the notice period is 180 days after the date of injury.
The notice must state the:
In most states, the dram shop statute is the exclusive way to hold a licensee or seller responsible for harm caused by their customers. In other words, an injured person isn't allowed to sue the licensee or seller for negligence (carelessness) in addition to, or instead of, filing a lawsuit under the dram shop statute.
That rule of exclusivity also applies in Connecticut, but only for sales of liquor to a person who's of legal drinking age—21 years old or older. If a seller negligently sells alcohol to an underage drinker—whether visibly intoxicated or not—who then injures someone, the injured person can sue for negligently causing their injuries.