Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents in D.C.

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

Every U.S. state has specific rules that dictate who can be held liable when an intoxicated person causes injury to another. In every state, an injured person may be able to seek damages directly from the intoxicated person after an alcohol-related accident -- such as a DUI car crash, for example. In some states, the injured person may also be able to file what is known as a “dram shop” claim. These claims are filed against a bar, store, or other establishment that sold to an intoxicated person. (Historical note: these laws are called “dram shop” laws because alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a “dram.”)

"Social host liability" claims are similar to dram shop claims, but they are made against private individuals who provide alcohol in a social setting like a cocktail party.

In this article, we’ll look at dram shop law and social host liability in the District of Columbia.

What is D.C.’s Dram Shop Law?

D.C. Code Annotated section 25-781 prohibits the sale or delivery of an alcoholic beverage to:

  • an intoxicated person
  • a person who appears to be intoxicated, or
  • “a person of notoriously intemperate habits” (some states use the term “habitual drunkard” to refer to people in this third group).

The law also prohibits “retail licensees” from allowing anyone in these three categories to consume alcohol on the licensee’s premises.

Other provisions of D.C.’s alcohol laws prohibit vendors from selling alcohol to anyone under age 21 or from allowing minors under age 21 to consume alcohol on the premises.

If an alcohol vendor violates this law, penalties include fines and the suspension of the vendor’s license to sell alcohol for a period of time. The law does not create a separate cause of action for an injured person against the vendor -- but court decisions handed down in the District of Columbia have basically provided that right to injured people.

The law also specifically prohibits patrons from suing an alcohol vendor for damages resulting from a refusal to serve alcohol to a person who is or appears to be intoxicated or who is “of notoriously intemperate habits.”

The classic example of this kind of case involves a bar's liability for injuries stemming from a drunk driving accident. But here’s another example of D.C.’s dram shop law at work. Suppose that Dale goes to Rosie’s Restaurant and Bar to have a few drinks. He begins slurring his speech, and when he tries to walk to the bathroom, he stumbles several times. Despite noting these behaviors, the bartender continues to serve Dale alcohol. On this second trip to the bathroom, Dale stumbles into Penny and knocks her down a flight of stairs, injuring her.

Rosie's Restaurant and Bar might face fines or suspension of its liquor license for continuing to serve alcohol to Dale under the D.C. statute. The bar might also face a civil lawsuit from Penny under D.C. case law. Although the statute does not give Penny the right to sue the bar for her injuries, D.C. case law does. Penny may also sue Dale for damages. (If the staircase was unreasonably dangerous, Penny might also have a case against the bar under premises liability law.)

No Social Host Liability in D.C.

Washington, D.C. does not allow civil liability claims against social hosts whose intoxicated guests injure others, even if the guest is under age 21. In D.C., these kinds of third-party claims can only be brought against alcohol vendors, not against individuals who serve alcohol at private social events.

Tweaking the example we set out in the previous section, suppose that instead of going to Rosie's Restaurant and Bar, Dale goes to a party hosted by Harold. At the party, he becomes intoxicated. While trying to find the bathroom, he stumbles and falls, knocking Penny off the deck and causing her injuries.

Unlike the situation in the bar, in which Penny might have sought damages from the bar as well as from Dale, here Penny cannot bring a claim against Harold. Harold is a social host, not an alcohol vendor. Penny can, however, seek damages from Dale, and she may have a premises liability claim if the deck was unreasonably dangerous -- for instance, if she only fell off because the guardrail gave way.

Damages and Time Limits in Washington, D.C. Dram Shop Claims

As in other kinds of injury cases, damages in dram shop cases may be sought for a variety of injuries and losses. Common types of damages include compensation for losses like:

  • medical, hospital, surgery, prescription, and rehabilitation bills
  • lost wages, both during medical treatment and recovery, and wages that would reasonably have been earned if a disability had not prevented the person from continuing to work
  • costs related to damaged or destroyed property
  • costs of replacement help for household chores and childcare the person ordinarily performed before the injury, and
  • pain and suffering.
Dram shop claims in Washington, D.C. must also be brought to court within three years of the date of injury under the District's "statute of limitations."

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