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

You’ve been hurt by a drunk person in Illinois. Can you bring a claim against whoever sold or served them the alcohol?

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Suppose you're in Illinois for a friend's wedding. After the festivities, you return to your motel. As you're climbing the stairs from the parking lot to your motel room, several drunk, unruly teens come charging down the steps. One of them plows into you, knocking you down the stairs and causing you serious injuries.

You can bring legal claims against the teenagers, but what if they don't have insurance or other assets to pay you compensation? Do you have any other options? In Illinois, the answer might be yes. Illinois has a liquor liability law that casts a very wide net, and it could provide you with legal relief.

After a quick review of liquor liability laws generally, we'll turn our attention to the particulars of Illinois law.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

A liquor liability law is usually a statute making a person or business that sells or provides liquor legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk customers or guests. In a few states, liquor liability comes from a state supreme court decision instead of a statute.

For much of America's history, there were no liquor liability laws. Why? The prevailing thought was that alcohol-related accidents were caused by drinking, not furnishing, alcoholic beverages. If you were hurt by someone who overindulged at the neighborhood pub, your only legal recourse was a claim against the person who hurt you.

This rule of nonliability, while popular with liquor sellers, often produced unfair results. If, as was often the case, the drunk person was without insurance or assets to pay compensation, the injured victim was out of luck.

States responded by enacting liquor liability laws. They generally come in two types:

  • dram shop laws, and
  • social host liability laws.

Dram Shop Laws

Long ago, taverns and pubs sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram." Patrons used the slang term "dram shop" to describe these businesses. Today, a dram shop law is one that makes liquor licensees—those licensed by the state to sell alcoholic beverages to the public—legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk customers. A typical dram shop statute imposes liability for selling alcohol to underage or clearly intoxicated buyers, who then cause injury to others.

Social Host Liability Law

"Social host" is just lawyer-speak for a person who hosts a party or other social gathering. When the liquor flows, guests sometimes get tipsy or intoxicated. If a drunken party guest injures someone, and if the state has a social host liability law, the host might be on the financial hook for damages. These laws, while common, aren't as widespread as dram shop laws.

Illinois' Liquor Liability Law

Illinois has one of the broadest liquor liability laws in the nation. Found at 235 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/6-21 (2023), the statute includes these key features.

Liability for selling liquor. Any person (including any business) licensed by Illinois or another state to sell liquor that causes another person to become intoxicated by selling liquor to them—inside or outside of Illinois—is liable to anyone who's injured by the intoxicated person in Illinois.

Unlike the vast majority of states, Illinois doesn't condition liability on selling to a person who's underage or clearly intoxicated. Any sale that causes intoxication, which in turn leads to injury in Illinois, gives rise to potential dram shop liability.

Owning or leasing property where liquor is sold. Any person who owns, rents, or allows the use of property knowing it will be used to sell liquor is liable—together with the person who sold the liquor—for injuries caused by a person who buys liquor there and becomes drunk. Once again, there's no requirement that the person who buys the liquor must have been visibly drunk at the time of purchase, as is required in most other states.

Limited Social Host Liability in Illinois

While Illinois has broad dram shop liability, the same isn't true for social hosts. The general rule in Illinois is no social host liability, with one narrow exception. We'll call it the "High School Party" rule.

Under Illinois law, any person who's at least 21 years old, and who rents a hotel or motel room or other premises knowing it will be used for underage drinking, is legally responsible for injuries caused by an underage drinker who becomes drunk on the property.

Damages and Time Limits in Illinois Dram Shop Cases

If you succeed with an Illinois dram shop case, you can collect compensation for your injuries (what the law calls "damages"). Most often, you'll be awarded compensatory damages. If you can't settle your claim and need to file a lawsuit in court, you must do so within the dram shop statute of limitations.

Compensatory damages. The compensatory damages you can collect for a successful dram shop claim include:

  • doctor, hospital, rehabilitation, and other medical bills
  • lost wages and benefits
  • amounts you must pay for replacement household services, like home maintenance, yard care, and child care
  • costs to repair or replace damaged property
  • pain and suffering
  • emotional distress, and
  • loss of enjoyment of life.

Dram shop damage caps. Now for the bad news: Illinois has limits, or "caps," on the damages you can collect in a dram shop action. Specifically, Illinois law caps both:

  • the personal injury damages an accident victim can collect, and
  • the damages an injured victim's family members or a deceased victim's survivors can recover for loss of companionship or loss of support.

For dram shop claims arising in 2023, the per-victim personal injury damages cap is $82,804.

For family members and survivors with claims that arose in 2023, the maximum award for loss of companionship or support is $101,205. This is an aggregate limit, meaning it's the maximum amount that can be awarded to all family members or survivors. For example, if there's one surviving family member, that person can collect up to $101,205. If there are eight survivors, they must split the award, up to a maximum of $101,205.

The Illinois Office of the Comptroller must adjust these caps for inflation each year. Here are the annual caps for each claim year from 2019 through 2023. If your dram shop claim arises after 2023, speak to an Illinois lawyer to find out the damages cap that will apply to your case.

Dram shop statute of limitations. Illinois, like all states, has a time deadline called a "statute of limitations" for filing a dram shop lawsuit in court. Under the Illinois dram shop statute, you have one year, usually from the date you're injured, to file your lawsuit in court.

What happens if you try to file after the deadline has expired? Barring an exception, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case. You'll be prevented from collecting any damages for your injuries.

Next Steps

While the Illinois dram shop law is very broad, that doesn't mean winning a dram shop case is easy. In addition to understanding claim and lawsuit procedures, you must know how Illinois courts have interpreted and applied the statute in past cases like yours. It's easy to make a mistake that can cost you lots of money.

Your best bet will be to have an experienced Illinois dram shop attorney to guide you through your case. If you're ready to move forward, here's how to find an attorney who's right for you.

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