Many U.S. states have laws that hold alcohol vendors or social hosts responsible for damages if they provide alcohol to an intoxicated person (or to a minor) who then causes harm to someone else. These laws are typically known as "dram shop" laws (because alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure known as a "dram").
But every state carries its own set of laws, and Delaware is one jurisdiction that has no specific dram shop claim on the books, although businesses that sell alcohol may face other types of liability in certain circumstances. In this article, we'll look at what Delaware's liquor liability and injury laws do and do not cover when it comes to alcohol-related accidents.
Under Delaware Code section 4-706, businesses that sell alcohol are prohibited from selling or serving alcohol to any person "if such individual is intoxicated or appears to be intoxicated." This section of the Delaware Code does, however, shield alcohol vendors from civil liability for damages as a result of the refusal of service.
Here's an example of this liquor liability law at work. Suppose that Allen meets Bob at a bar to discuss a potential business contract. While they talk business, Allen and Bob have several drinks. Eventually, Bob becomes unsteady on his feet and starts slurring his speech. Under Section 4-706, the bartender has a responsibility to stop serving alcohol to Bob, because Bob is intoxicated or appears to be intoxicated.
Now, suppose that the bartender actually does refuse to serve Bob any more drinks. Bob becomes angry and storms out, ruining Allen's chances of landing a business contract with Bob. Although Allen may blame the bar and wish to sue for tortious interference with a business contract, Section 4-706 prevents Allen from doing so, because the bartender acted in accordance with the section's prohibition against serving alcohol to intoxicated individuals.
Delaware Code section 4-904 also prohibits the sale of alcohol to persons under age 21. Selling alcohol to minors is a misdemeanor in Delaware, carrying penalties that include potential imprisonment and fines. This section of the law, however, does not allow an intoxicated minor or a person injured by an intoxicated minor to seek civil damages against the vendor that provided the alcohol.
Delaware law does not allow an injured person to seek damages from an alcohol vendor or social host who provided alcohol to an intoxicated person or minor who then caused the injuries. However, the injured person may be able to seek damages from the intoxicated person or minor directly.
Here's an example. Suppose that Diane goes to Tom's Tavern one night to play pool and have a few beers. After several drinks, she becomes intoxicated and stumbles away from the pool table to find the bathroom, which is in the basement. As Diane tries to go down the basement stairs, she stumbles and falls into Pete, who is coming up the stairs. They both fall to the bottom of the staircase and Pete is injured.
In Delaware, Pete may not sue Tom's Tavern for providing the alcohol that caused Diane to be too intoxicated to go down the stairs safely. Pete may, however, file a personal injury lawsuit against Diane, seeking damages for his injuries. If the staircase itself was unreasonably dangerous, both Diane and Pete may have a premises liability claim against Tom's Tavern as well -- but this claim will not depend on the fact that the bar served alcohol to Diane.
Similar rules apply to social hosts who serve alcohol at private parties. Delaware law also imposes criminal penalties on both vendors and social hosts who allow alcohol to be purchased or given to minors under age 21, or who fail to properly supervise minors on the premises where alcohol is being served.
Although personal injury damages may not be sought against an alcohol vendor or social host based on injuries caused by a third party, a person who is injured by an intoxicated individual may seek damages directly from that individual. Common damages in injury claims include: