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

We explain when you can sue a Maine bar or social host for serving liquor to someone who injures you, how long you have to sue, Maine's damage cap, and more.

By , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

While driving home from work one evening, you were broadsided by a drunk driver and ended up with serious injuries. Turns out the uninsured driver was drunk, having spent much of the afternoon and evening at a local bar. You're considering an insurance claim or a lawsuit against the bar that overserved the drunk driver. But you're unsure about Maine law.

Am I allowed to sue the bar? If so, how much time do I have to file my case? What compensation ("damages," in legal speak) can I collect?

You're in the right place. We begin with an overview of liquor liability laws generally. Then we'll turn our attention to the specifics of Maine law.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

When we use the term "liquor liability laws," we're referring to state laws that make a seller or provider of alcoholic drinks liable (legally responsible) to pay money damages for injuries caused by a drunk customer or guest. A retail seller might face other legal consequences—civil fines or suspension or loss of their liquor license, for example—for making unlawful sales. But those other consequences aren't our concern here.

Common Law Rules

Under the common law—the body of court made legal rules states inherited from England during the founding era—the general rule for liquor liability was simple: There was none. A seller or provider of alcohol wasn't legally responsible for alcohol-related injuries. Why? Responsibility for injuries and deaths, the reasoning went, falls on those who drink alcohol, not those who sell or serve it.

While superficially appealing, the no-liability rule often produced unfair results. Consider our opening example. As between an innocent accident victim and a bar that overserves a drunk customer, who should bear the burden of that customer's wrongdoing? The question requires little thought.

Over time, courts carved out exceptions to the no-liability rule. Liability could result, for instance, if a bar served a "clearly" or "obviously" intoxicated customer. Another frequent exception imposed liability for serving underage drinkers.

Modern Liquor Liability Statutes

Today, most states have statutes that create liquor liability, at least in limited circumstances. Quite often, though, these statutes don't stray far from the old common law rules. State liquor liability statutes fall into two groups: Dram shop laws and social host liability laws.

Dram shop laws. Long ago, bars were called "dram shops" because they sold liquor by a measure known as a "dram." State dram shop laws usually apply to liquor licensees—people and businesses licensed by the state to sell beer, wine, and liquor to the public.

Typically, these laws are limited in scope. Rather than applying across the board to all liquor sales, licensees are made responsible only for selling to an intoxicated customer or an underage drinker.

Social host liability laws. A "social host" is someone who throws a party or hosts a similar social get together. When the booze flows, guests might overindulge. Social host liability laws make the host responsible for injuries caused by a drunk party guest.

Like dram shop laws, social host liability laws tend to have very limited reach. In most states, there's no liability for providing alcohol to a guest who's of legal drinking age, even if they're clearly drunk. The typical law makes a host liable for providing alcoholic drinks to underage drinkers, or for letting underage drinkers drink on the host's property.

Maine's Dram Shop and Social Host Liability Laws

You can find Maine's dram shop and social host liability statutes in the "Maine Liquor Liability Act" (the Act). Maine is more lenient with social hosts than with liquor licensees when it comes to negligently furnishing liquor to adults. With that lone exception, both are treated the same for serving underage drinkers and intoxicated adults.

What Does the Act Cover?

The Act covers both negligent and reckless service of liquor. Any sale, gift, or other furnishing of liquor constitutes service. For example, "service" under the Act would include, among other things:

  • retail or other sales of any kind
  • providing liquor by the drink to party guests without charge, and
  • furnishing kegs of beer for guests to serve themselves at a social function.

Negligent service. Negligence is the failure to be reasonably careful under the circumstances. Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2506 (2024) creates liability for negligently serving alcohol to:

  • a minor (for purposes of the Act, any person younger than 21), or
  • a visibly intoxicated individual, meaning a person whose actions or appearance "clearly demonstrate[] a state of intoxication." (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2503.7 (2024).)

Reckless service. The Act also imposes liability for recklessly serving liquor. Service is reckless when the server:

  • intentionally serves liquor knowing that the person being served is a minor or is visibly intoxicated, and
  • consciously disregards an "obvious and substantial risk" that the service will cause harm to any person, including the drinker.

To be reckless, the server's conduct must be a "gross deviation" from what a reasonably careful person would do under the circumstances. In other words, the server's actions must go well beyond simple negligence.

Finally, the Act spells out what can constitute evidence of recklessness:

  • actively encouraging drunk persons to drink "substantial amounts" of liquor
  • serving a drinker whom the server knows or should know is underage, and
  • serving a person so much liquor that it creates a "substantial risk" of death from alcohol poisoning.

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2507 (2024).)

Who's Covered by the Act?

The Act specifies who can be a plaintiff (a party who sues) and a defendant (a party who's being sued).

Plaintiffs. With limited exceptions, any person who's injured because a server negligently or recklessly served liquor can sue for damages under the Act.

The exceptions? When the intoxicated person was at least 18 years old at the time they were negligently served, a lawsuit can't be filed by:

  • the intoxicated person
  • the intoxicated person's estate, if they were killed, or
  • any person bringing a claim arising from the intoxicated person's injury or death, such as a spouse asserting a loss of consortium.

When the intoxicated person was recklessly served, these exceptions don't apply.

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2504 (2024).)

Defendants. The act covers any "server," meaning any liquor licensee or non-licensee (including a social host) that sells, gives away, or otherwise furnishes liquor, along with their employees and agents.

Both licensees and social hosts can be sued for negligent or reckless service, with one exception. Social hosts aren't on the hook for negligently providing alcohol to intoxicated adult drinkers. But they are liable for recklessly serving intoxicated adults.

(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2505 (2024).)

How Long Do I Have to File a Dram Shop or Social Host Liability Case?

A "statute of limitations" is a law that limits your time to file a lawsuit in court. The Act has two time-sensitive rules you need to know about:

  • a prefiling notice requirement, and
  • a statute of limitations.

Prefiling Notice Requirement

If you plan to file a Maine dram shop or social host liability lawsuit, you must give each defendant written notice of your intent to sue within 180 days after "the date of the server's conduct creating liability... ." Your notice must describe the "time, place and circumstances" of both:

  • the server's conduct, and
  • your injuries and damages.

The court can dismiss your lawsuit for failure to timely give this notice, unless you give notice before the statute of limitations (see below) expires and demonstrate to the court good cause for your failure. (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2513 (2024).)

Note, importantly, that giving this notice isn't the same as filing a lawsuit in court. The notice is a prerequisite to a lawsuit, not a substitute for it.

Statute of Limitations

Under Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2514 (2024), you have two years to file your lawsuit in court. The two-year clock starts, in most cases, on the date you were injured. There might be circumstances when it starts running later, meaning you get more time to sue. Your lawyer can fill you in on the details.

What happens if you miss the lawsuit-filing deadline? Unless there's a rule that gives you more time, your dram shop or social host liability claim is dead. File a lawsuit after your time runs out and the court will dismiss it as untimely. You won't be able to negotiate a settlement, either, because you no longer have a claim to settle. You've lost the right to collect damages for your injuries.

Damages in a Maine Dram Shop or Social Host Liability Lawsuit

Damages in a Maine dram shop or social host liability case are meant to compensate you for your injuries and losses. They fall into two categories: Economic damages and noneconomic damages.

Economic Damages

Also known as "special" damages, economic damages reimburse you for expenses and losses that come out of your pocket, or that your insurance pays on your behalf. Medical bills, lost wages, costs of medical equipment, and pharmacy charges are common examples.

Noneconomic Damages

Noneconomic damages, also called "general" damages, compensate you for injuries that don't cost you directly out of pocket. They often include such things as disability, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, and pain and suffering.

Maine Limits Your Damages

Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 28-A, § 2509 (2024) limits, or caps, damages in a dram shop or social host liability case. All damages other than medical expenses are capped at $350,000 per accident or occurrence. When several people are injured, the $350,000 cap must be apportioned between them.

This cap only applies to claims against a server under the dram shop or social host liability law. When you also sue the drunk person who injured you—and if they're insured, you will—the cap doesn't apply to that claim.

Get Help With Your Maine Liquor Liability Claim

It's tempting to think that a dram shop or social host liability case will be a "slam dunk." After all, you're suing a bar for overserving a clearly drunk customer who then drove off and caused a wreck involving serious injuries. What could be easier?

Guess again. Dram shop and social host liability cases often involve tricky factual and legal issues. Without experienced legal help on your side, you stand little chance of success. The defendant will be represented by an attorney. To make it a fair fight, you should be, too.

When you're ready to get started with your case, here's how to find a Maine attorney who's right for you.

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