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

When a drunk person injures you in Minnesota, do you have a claim against whoever provided them with alcohol?

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

You and some friends are celebrating a birthday at a local bar. Another patron, clearly drunk, begins taunting your group, acting belligerently, and threatening physical violence. Despite your requests, the bartender continues to serve the patron. Eventually, in a drunken rage, the patron strikes you in the face, breaking your jaw.

You want to get your medical bills and lost wages paid, and get compensation (what the law calls "damages") for your pain and suffering. But the patron has no insurance or other assets you can look to for payment. Can you bring a claim for damages against the bar? In Minnesota, the answer is: Yes, possibly so.

We start with an explanation of liquor liability laws generally. From there, we'll turn our attention to Minnesota law.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

You might be surprised to learn that as a general rule, there's no liability (legal responsibility) for selling or serving liquor to someone who gets drunk and injures others. Why? Alcohol-related accidents and injuries, the thinking goes, are caused by drinking alcohol, not by selling or serving it.

Liquor retailers like this rule. While the logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny, the rule does have some appeal, given its simplicity. But it's not hard to see how it can—and does—sometimes produce unfair results. Our opening example provides a simple illustration.

Partially in response to this unfairness, many states have enacted liquor liability laws. A liquor liability law, as we're using the term, is usually a state statute making those who sell, serve, or furnish alcoholic beverages liable for damages when the people they sell to or serve get drunk and injure others. We're not referring to criminal laws making certain liquor sales illegal.

Liquor liability laws come in two varieties: Dram shop laws and social host liability laws.

Dram Shop Laws

Long ago, bars and taverns sometimes were called "dram shops," because they sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram." Typically, a dram shop law makes a liquor licensee—a person or business licensed by the state to sell beer, liquor, and other alcoholic beverages to the public—liable for injuries caused by their drunk customers.

Today, most states have a dram shop law. In some states, the law only applies when a licensee sells to or serves a clearly intoxicated customer. In other states, it also covers sales to underage customers.

Social Host Liability Laws

The term "social host" is just legal-speak for someone who hosts a party. When there's liquor on hand, often a few guests overindulge. A social host liability law makes the party host legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk party guests.

Social host liability laws aren't as common as dram shop laws. Where they're found, they often apply only when the host furnishes alcoholic beverages to underage drinkers, or allows them to drink on the host's property.

Minnesota's Dram Shop Law

You can find Minnesota's dram shop statute at Minn. Stat. § 340A.801, subd.1 (2024). Generally speaking, it allows those who are injured by an intoxicated person to bring a claim for damages against a seller who caused the intoxication by illegally selling alcoholic beverages.

Elements of a Dram Shop Claim

As interpreted by Minnesota's courts, a dram shop claim requires proof of these elements:

  • an illegal sale of alcoholic beverages
  • made by a liquor licensee
  • that causes or contributes to a person's intoxication, and
  • the plaintiff's (the person filing a dram shop lawsuit) injuries and damages were caused by the intoxication.

An illegal sale. Under Minnesota law, an illegal sale includes any sale:

Proof of obvious intoxication requires showing the familiar, observable signs of being drunk, like slurred speech, stumbling and falling, lack of coordination, and passing out. Blood alcohol content can be evidence of obvious intoxication, but by itself won't suffice. The same is true for expert medical testimony.

Good faith reliance on a realistic-looking fake ID is a defense to a dram shop claim premised on an illegal sale to an underage customer. (Minn. Stat. § 340A.801, subd. 3a (2024).)

Notice of claim. Before you can bring a Minnesota dram shop claim, you first must give the licensee written notice of your intent to do so. The notice must state:

  • the time and date that the alcoholic beverages were sold, and to whom they were sold
  • the name and address of each person who was injured or whose property was damaged, and
  • the date, time, and location of the injury or property damage.

(Minn. Stat. § 340A.802, subd. 1 (2024).) This notice must be served on the licensee within 240 days after the date you hire a lawyer to represent you on the claim. (Minn. Stat. § 340A.802, subd. 2 (2024).)

Example: Minnesota Dram Shop Law

Gerald stops by Terry's Tavern for a few drinks. Several rounds later, Gerald is stumbling and staggering, slurring his speech, and having difficulty holding on to his drink glass. Nevertheless, the bartender continues to serve Gerald. Some time later, Gerald decides to leave the bar. As he tries to walk down the front steps, he stumbles and collides with Paula, who falls down the steps and is injured.

Paula can seek damages directly from Gerald for his negligent behavior. She can also bring a dram shop claim against Terry's Tavern, a liquor licensee. Terry's illegally sold liquor to Gerald when he was visibly intoxicated, and caused his intoxication. Because Gerald was intoxicated, he injured Paula.

Minnesota's Social Host Liability Law

Minnesota's social host liability statute, Minn. Stat. § 340A.90, subd. 1 (2024), makes a social host liable for injuries caused by an underage drinker when the host:

  • provides alcoholic beverages to an underage drinker, causing their intoxication, or
  • while in control of the premises, knowingly or recklessly allows an underage drinker to drink there, causing their intoxication.

Unlike the dram shop law, Minnesota's social host law doesn't impose liability for providing alcohol to those who are old enough to drink legally. Additionally, the social host statute only applies to hosts who are at least 21 years old. Finally, note that an underage drinker can't bring a claim against the social host to recover for their own injuries.

Damages in a Minnesota Liquor Liability Case

If you succeed with a Minnesota dram shop or social host liability claim, you're allowed to collect damages to compensate for your injuries and property losses. Punitive damages aren't available.

Here are the kinds of damages you might be able to recover:

  • your doctor, hospital, rehabilitation, and other medical bills
  • lost wages and benefits for the time you're off work
  • amounts you must pay for household and childcare services
  • other out-of-pocket costs related to your injuries and treatment
  • pain and suffering
  • emotional distress, and
  • loss of support and services.

Deadlines to File Your Case in Court

When you're not able to settle your dram shop or social host liability claim and must file a lawsuit in court, keep an eye on the filing deadline. This deadline, called a "statute of limitations," limits the time you have to file your case. Minnesota has one statute of limitations for dram shop claims, and a different statute for social host liability cases.

Dram Shop Claims

If you need to file a dram shop lawsuit against a licensee, Minn. Stat. § 340A.802, subd. 2 (2024) gives you two years from the date you were injured to sue.

Social Host Liability Claims

There's not a statute of limitations that applies specifically to social host liability lawsuits. The Minnesota court of appeals has ruled that the limitation period for these claims is six years. (Christiansen v. University of Minnesota Bd. of Regents, 733 N.W.2d 156, 158-59 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007).) Most often, the limitation clock will start to run on the date you're injured.

What Happens If You Miss the Deadline?

Suppose you miss the filing deadline and try to sue after the statute of limitations has expired. What will happen? Unless there's an exception to the deadline giving you more time to file, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your suit. You'll lose your right to seek compensation for your injuries.

Get Help With Your Liquor Liability Case

It's tempting to think that a dram shop or social host liability case will be easy to win. A bar over serves a drunk customer, who then injures or kills someone. How could a case be any simpler? Don't be fooled.

While we've covered some of the basics of Minnesota liquor liability law, there's much more we haven't had a chance to discuss. These cases often involve complex issues of both fact and law. To really understand Minnesota dram shop and social host liability law, you need to understand how the state's courts have interpreted the statutes, and how the statutes might apply to a case like yours.

If you think you have a claim, your best bet will be to hire an experienced Minnesota liquor liability lawyer. This is someone who knows the statutes, knows how courts apply them in different cases, and understands how to get the most out of your claim.

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

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