While on your way home from work one evening, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit your car at high speed, causing you serious injuries. After some investigation, you learned that the drunk driver was uninsured. Unfortunately, you didn't have uninsured motorist insurance at the time of the wreck. Do you have any other options? Can you bring a claim against whoever supplied the drunk driver with alcohol?
In Missouri, the answer is: Maybe. We begin with a quick overview of liquor liability laws generally. Then we'll turn our attention to the specifics of Missouri law.
For much of our country's history, states were reluctant to pass liquor liability laws imposing legal responsibility on sellers of alcoholic beverages. The prevailing attitude—still widely accepted today—was that the blame for alcohol-related injuries rests with those who drink alcohol, not those who provide it.
Today, most states have enacted liquor liability statutes called "dram shop laws." Dram shop laws hold retail sellers of alcoholic beverages liable for injuries caused by their drunk or underage customers. A number of states have also passed "social host liability laws" that make private individuals responsible when they furnish alcohol to others.
Long ago, bars and taverns sold alcohol by a measurement called a "dram." Customers often referred to these businesses as "dram shops." Today, a typical dram shop law imposes civil liability—that is, liability for money damages—on a liquor retailer that sells to an underage or visibly intoxicated customer, when the customer then injures another person.
Social host liability laws make private individuals who furnish alcohol at parties or other gatherings liable for money damages when their guests injure others. Some social host liability laws are created by statutes, while others arise from court decisions.
These laws tend to have a narrower scope than dram shop laws. In a number of states, for example, social host liability laws are limited to circumstances where a party host furnishes alcohol to minors, or allows minors to drink on their property.
Missouri's dram shop law is found at Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.053 (2023). The statute begins by stating Missouri's general rule: Those who furnish alcohol aren't the legal cause of injuries inflicted by drunk people. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.053.1 (2023).)
The law then creates two exceptions to that general rule. A "licensee," meaning someone who's licensed by the state to sell alcoholic beverages to the public, can be held legally responsible when the licensee:
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.053.2 (2023).)
Missouri's dram shop law only applies to licensees who sell liquor "by the drink for consumption on the premises." That is, it only applies to bars, taverns, restaurants, and other establishments licensed for on-site drinking. Package liquor sellers—convenience outlets, grocery stores, liquor stores, and the like—aren't covered by the law.
In nearly all civil cases seeking money damages, the plaintiff (the party who files the lawsuit) must prove their claim by a standard of proof called the "preponderance of the evidence." Under this preponderance standard, the plaintiff must prove their claim is at least slightly more likely to be true than not true.
In a Missouri dram shop case, the plaintiff must prove their case by the more demanding "clear and convincing evidence" standard. You'll need more evidence—and more convincing evidence—to prove a licensee was to blame under Missouri's dram shop statute.
Missouri law defines "visibly intoxicated" to include "significantly uncoordinated physical action" or "significant physical dysfunction." (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.053.3 (2023).) Most adults are familiar with signs of visible intoxication. Slurred speech, passing out, stumbling and falling, and impaired coordination are telltale markers.
Under Missouri's dram shop statute, proof of blood alcohol content, standing alone, doesn't equal proof of visible intoxication. A court can consider blood alcohol content as some evidence of intoxication, but other evidence of visible intoxication is also required.
Missouri law doesn't allow an injured person to sue a social host who provides alcohol to someone, who then causes injuries or death. Missouri's dram shop statute only applies to certain retail licensees. And Missouri's Supreme Court has ruled that Missouri courts can't allow social host lawsuits based on a claim that the host negligently served alcohol. (See Andres v. Alpha Kappa Lambda Fraternity, 730 S.W.2d 547, 553 (Mo. 1987).)
Long story short: There's no Missouri social host liability, even if the host served a person who was visibly intoxicated or younger than 21.
Damages in a Missouri dram shop case are meant to compensate the injured person for losses related to their injuries. These "compensatory damages" often include:
Like all states, Missouri has deadlines called "statutes of limitations" on filing cases in court. Under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 516.120 (2023), you must file a dram shop lawsuit in court within five years, usually from the date you were injured. In some circumstances, you might have more time. Speak with a Missouri lawyer for advice in your case.
If you file your lawsuit after the statute of limitations deadline has expired, the court will have no choice but to dismiss it.
Missouri dram shop cases—like all dram shop cases—can be legally and factually complicated and difficult to win. Among other things, you'll have to deal with the clear and convincing standard of proof. Unless the person who injured you was younger than 21 when they were served alcohol, you'll also need evidence to prove visible intoxication.
A Missouri lawyer who's experienced with dram shop cases understands Missouri law and can help you navigate the twists and turns of your case. If you're ready to move forward, here's how to find an attorney who's right for you.