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

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

When alcohol plays a role in causing an accident or injury, several U.S. states allow the injured person to seek compensation not just from the person who was intoxicated, but also from the third-party vendor who provided the alcohol. These laws are known as "dram shop" laws. (Historical Note: the name "dram shop" arises from the fact that liquor was historically sold by a unit of measure called a dram.)

Some states have also passed laws that can be used to hold a social host civilly liable for providing alcohol to someone who goes on to cause an accident.

In this article, we'll look at the state of Georgia laws when it comes to third-party liability for alcohol-related accidents.

What is Georgia's Dram Shop Law?

Georgia Code section 51-1-40 allows an injured person to hold a seller of alcohol (such as a bar, restaurant, or liquor store) liable if the establishment:

  • "willfully, knowingly, and unlawfully" serves alcohol to a minor under age 21, or
  • "knowingly" serves alcohol to a person who is "noticeably intoxicat[ed]," and
  • the establishment knows that the minor or intoxicated person will soon be driving a motor vehicle.

Here's an example of Georgia's dram shop law in action. Suppose that on his way home from work, Dave stops at Tina's Tavern for a few drinks. Tina, the bartender, continues to serve Dave alcohol even after Dave has begun stumbling around, slurring his speech, and getting unusually and unreasonably angry at the people near him. Finally, Dave pulls his car keys out of his pocket, pushes his glass across the bar to Tina, and says "One more for the road." Tina serves him, and Dave finishes the drink, then stands up and heads out the door. While driving home, Dave hits and injures Paul, a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

In this situation, Paul may bring a dram shop claim against Tina's Tavern, because the tavern continued to serve Dave knowing he was intoxicated and that he was likely going to drive when he left the bar. Paul may also seek damages from Dave for causing the accident. If Dave had not been intoxicated but had been under age 21, Paul would also have a claim against Tina's Tavern.

One unusual feature of Georgia dram shop law is that it holds vendors and social hosts liable only if they serve alcohol to a minor or intoxicated person knowing that that person "will soon be driving a motor vehicle." In the above example, Paul would not be able to hold Tina's Tavern liable if the tavern had had no way of knowing Dave would drive -- for instance, if a taxi had been waiting for Dave or if the tavern knew Dave had walked to the bar.

"Social Host" Liability in Georgia

The same statute that holds vendors liable if they serve alcohol to minors or to noticeably intoxicated adults also allows injured plaintiffs to sue social hosts for injuries in civil court. Here also, the host of a party can be liable for serving alcohol to a minor or intoxicated person who then causes injures -- but only if the host knows that the minor or intoxicated person "will soon be driving a motor vehicle." Again, we're talking about section 51-1-40 of the Georgia Code.

Here's an example. Suppose that instead of going to the tavern after work, Dave stops by the home of Holly, a coworker who is throwing a barbecue. Dave has several drinks at the barbecue and becomes noticeably intoxicated, but Holly keeps serving him alcohol. Eventually, Dave gets back in his car and drives home, again hitting Paul in the crosswalk. Like the example above in which Dave went to the tavern, Paul has a claim both against Dave and against Holly. Even though Holly is a social host and not a vendor, she can still be held liable under Georgia dram shop law.

Just like for vendors, dram shop law for social hosts requires that the host know the intoxicated person will soon be driving. If the host doesn't know the person will drive, he or she may not be liable. For example, suppose that when Dave becomes intoxicated at Holly's party, Holly takes his car keys and tells Dave that he should stay in the guest room overnight. Dave agrees, but a few drinks later, he sneaks Holly's car keys out of her purse, takes Holly's car, and hits Paul in the crosswalk on his way home.

Once again, Paul can make a personal injury claim directly against Dave. However, Paul may not have a claim against Holly. Remember, in order for Paul's case to succeed, Holly had to know that Dave would likely drive a car. The fact that she took his keys and told Dave he could stay at the house indicates that she did not know Dave would drive. Here, a court may have to weigh the evidence to determine what Holly knew and whether she can be held liable under section 51-1-40.

Damages and Lawsuit Filing Deadlines in Georgia

In civil claims like the ones we've been discussing here, liability is expressed solely in terms of damages, meaning monetary compensation for the injured person's losses. Common types of injury damages include medical bills, damaged property, lost wages and benefits, and non-economic harm like pain and suffering.

These kinds of civil cases must also be filed within the time limits set by Georgia's statute of limitations, meaning they must be brought to court within two years of the date of the underlying injury.

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