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

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

If you are injured by someone whose intoxication played a part in causing an accident, you can usually bring a personal injury lawsuit against that person. In many states, including Massachusetts, the law also allows you to hold an alcohol vendor civilly liable for providing alcohol to the intoxicated person who caused your injuries. These kinds of claims are known as "dram shop" claims. (Historical note: the name comes from the fact that alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a "dram.")

In this article, we'll look at Massachusetts laws that could impose third-party liability for an alcohol-related accident, including dram shop laws and rules that affect social hosts who serve alcohol at parties or other events.

Massachusetts Dram Shop Law

Unlike other states with dram shop laws, Massachusetts does not have a specific statute allowing injured people to bring civil claims for damages against alcohol vendors. However, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 138, Section 69 does prohibit vendors from serving or selling alcohol to an "intoxicated person," and Massachusetts courts have held that a vendor who does so may be held liable for negligence in a civil lawsuit.

In order to hold a vendor liable as a third party after an alcohol-related accident in Massachusetts, the injured person must show that the vendor continued to serve alcohol to the person who caused the injuries, even after that person became visibly intoxicated.

Let's look at an example. After work, Dylan stops at Bob's Bar for happy hour. After a few rounds, Dylan begins to slur his speech and have trouble sitting on his bar stool, but the bartender continues to serve Dylan alcohol anyway. When Dylan finally tries to stand up from the bar stool, he falls over, colliding with Petunia who is sitting on the bar stool next to Dylan's. Petunia falls to the floor and is injured.

Petunia may file a personal injury claim directly against Dylan for her injuries. She may also choose to file a dram shop claim against Bob's Bar, for negligently serving alcohol to Dylan even though Dylan had become visibly intoxicated. (Note: If Petunia fell because the bar stool she was sitting on was in an unreasonably dangerous condition or was defective, she might also have a premises liability claim against the bar or a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the defective bar stool.)

Social Host Liability in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, a social host may face criminal penalties if he or she allows a minor under age 21 to consume alcohol on the social host's property. However, there is no civil statute that can be used to hold a social hosts liable if a guest -- whether a minor or an adult -- becomes intoxicated and then causes harm to someone else.

For example, suppose that instead of going to Bob's Bar in the above example, Dylan goes to a house party hosted by his neighbor, Hannah. Dylan has several drinks and then heads down the stairs into the basement. Halfway down the stairs, he stumbles and knocks against Petunia. Both Dylan and Petunia fall down the staircase and are injured.

Once again, Petunia may be able to file a personal injury claim against Dylan. However, Petunia will not be able to file a claim against Hannah for serving alcohol to Dylan.

Damages and Time Limits in Massachusetts Dram Shop Cases

In a dram shop claim, an injured person may seek damages from an alcohol vendor who negligently served an intoxicated person who then caused injuries. Damages that are commonly sought in these kinds of claims include:

  • hospital bills and other medical treatment
  • lost wages and other lost income
  • damaged or destroyed property
  • lost value of household services or childcare the injured person would otherwise have performed, and
  • pain and suffering.

Learn more about Damages in Personal Injury Cases.

Like other civil lawsuits, a dram shop claim must be filed within the time limit set by Massachusetts's statute of limitations. Under this law, an injured person typically has three years from the date of injury to file a claim. Once this three-year time limit has passed, the claimant loses the right to have the case considered by the court. So, it's crucial to understand and abide by this filing deadline.

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