Florida's Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents

When you’re injured by an intoxicated person in Florida, can you hold a third party liable for providing the alcohol?

By , Attorney (University of San Francisco School of Law)
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney

Say you're on the way home from a late night at work. As you drive through an intersection, a drunk driver runs a red light, smashes into your car, and causes you serious injuries. Subject to the requirements of Florida's no-fault auto insurance law, you can bring an insurance claim or file a lawsuit against the drunk driver. But what about whoever sold or served the alcohol? Are they on the hook too?

As a general rule, the answer under Florida law is no. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule. After we provide some background on dram shop laws and social host liability, we'll explain those exceptions.

What Is Dram Shop and Social Host Liability?

Under the early American common law, courts refused to hold sellers and servers of alcoholic beverages legally responsible for the harms caused by their drunk customers. The reason? Judges and juries found that it was the drinking of alcohol, not selling or serving it, that caused injuries. Liability, they said, fell squarely on the shoulders of those who did the drinking.

While that rule has some superficial appeal, it can cause problems for injured victims. Drunk drivers often drive without auto insurance, or without enough insurance to cover the injuries they cause. Absent the ability to look elsewhere for compensation, those who are injured often find themselves—no pun intended—high and dry.

States started taking a different view in the mid-20th century. They began enacting dram shop and social host liability statutes. Today, a number of states have these laws on the books. Here's how they operate and how they differ.

Dram Shop Laws

Long ago, taverns sold alcohol by a measurement called the "dram." Bars and taverns were sometimes called "dram shops." Today, dram shop laws typically regulate business establishments that are licensed by the state to sell or serve alcohol ("licensees"). Most states have enacted some version of a dram shop law, but they vary widely in how they operate.

Social Host Liability Laws

Social host liability refers to holding those who serve alcohol at private social functions legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk guests. Social host liability laws are less common than dram shop laws. Where they exist, they often impose liability for serving alcohol to underage drinkers.

Florida's Dram Shop Law

You can find Florida's dram shop law at Fla. Stat. § 768.125 (2023). The statute includes a general rule—barring legal liability for those who sell or furnish alcohol to persons of legal age to drink—and outlining two exceptions to the general rule. Under these exceptions, liability can be imposed for:

  • unlawfully selling or furnishing alcoholic beverages to a person who's underage, or
  • knowingly serving a person who's "habitually addicted" to alcohol.

Unlawfully Selling or Furnishing Alcohol to Someone Who's Underage

According to the Florida Supreme Court, this exception is tied to the Florida law that makes it a misdemeanor to provide alcohol to underage drinkers, Fla. Stat. § 562.11 (2023) (the "misdemeanor statute"). (See Ellis v. N.G.N. of Tampa, Inc., 586 So.2d 1042, 1048 (Fla. 1991).)

In a lawsuit under the dram shop statute seeking to hold a licensee liable for providing alcohol to a person under the legal drinking age, the plaintiff (the party who filed the lawsuit) must prove that the licensee violated the misdemeanor statute by:

  • selling, giving, or serving alcohol, or allowing another person to serve alcohol, to a person under 21 years old, or
  • allowing a person under 21 years old to drink alcohol on the premises.

Knowingly Serving a Person Who's Habitually Addicted to Alcohol

This exception only applies to those who serve alcoholic beverages for drinking on the premises. It doesn't apply to retail or packaged liquor that's sold for later, off-premises consumption. So, for example, it doesn't apply to sales by liquor, convenience, or grocery stores. (See Persen v. Southland Corp., 656 So.2d 453, 455 (Fla. 1995).)

The term "knowingly" means that the licensee must have knowingly served a person who's a habitual alcohol addict. A case called Peoples Restaurant v. Sabo, 591 So.2d 907, 908 (Fla. 1991) illustrates the kinds of facts that will satisfy this requirement.

Hoag caused an auto accident while drunk. Shortly before the accident, he'd left Peoples Restaurant bar. According to Hoag's testimony:

  • he was an alcoholic at the time of the accident
  • for about four months before the accident, he went to the Peoples bar twice a week
  • he drank hard liquor at Peoples until he became drunk
  • he got drunk every time he went to Peoples
  • the bartenders at Peoples never refused to serve him
  • the bartenders all knew him well, and sometimes began pouring his favorite drink as soon as they saw him enter the bar
  • the bartenders always poured him double shots, and
  • on the night of the auto accident, he'd had the equivalent of 20 shots of liquor.

Social Host Liability in Florida

Florida's dram shop law only applies to liquor licensees, not to social hosts. But a social host can, in some circumstances, be legally responsible for allowing underage drinkers to drink alcohol. Here's how it works.

Under Fla. Stat. § 856.015 (2023), it's a misdemeanor for a host, during a social gathering at a residence, to:

  • knowingly allow underage persons to possess or drink alcohol at the gathering, while
  • failing to take reasonable steps to prevent them from possessing or drinking it.

A person who's injured by an underage drinker from the gathering can sue the host. Proof that the host violated this statute is also proof that the host was negligent, meaning the host can be held responsible for the injured person's losses.

For example, suppose that Joe is the father of high school student Jane. Joe is popular with Jane's friends because he lets them gather at his home on the weekends, where they regularly drink alcohol.

During one such gathering, Sam, who was 17 years old, became very drunk. Joe knew that the kids were drinking and did nothing to stop it. While trying to drive home, Sam collided with another vehicle, killing the driver. Joe can be sued for wrongful death for letting Sam drink at the party and for doing nothing to stop it.

Damages and Time Limits in Florida Dram Shop and Social Host Liability Cases

Dram shop and social host liability cases are civil claims, meaning claims that seek only money damages. Compensation for losses can include damages for things like:

  • past and future medical bills, including the costs of emergency care, surgery, hospitalization, medication, and rehabilitation
  • lost wages, including future wages and benefits that might reasonably have been earned
  • costs for damaged or destroyed property
  • emotional distress, and
  • pain and suffering.

Like other kinds of injury claims, Florida dram shop and social host liability cases must be filed in court before the expiration of a deadline called the "statute of limitations." Florida generally requires negligence-based injury claims like these to be filed within two years from the date of injury. (See Fla. Stat. § 95.11(4)(a) (2023).) If you try to file your case after the two year limitation period has run out, the court will have no choice but to dismiss it.

Get Help With Your Case

Dram shop and social host liability cases can be tricky. Because they might involve other Florida statutes, you need to understand how courts have interpreted and applied those statutes in cases like yours. An experienced Florida lawyer can help guide you through the twists and turns and will give you the best chance of success.

If you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you and your case.

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