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

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

In Montana, anyone injured by an intoxicated person may bring a personal injury claim directly against that individual. In certain situations, the injured person may also be able to bring a claim against the business that provided the alcohol to the intoxicated person, under "dram shop" laws. (Historical note: these laws get their name from the historical fact that alcohol was traditionally sold by a unit of measure called a "dram.")

In this article, we'll look at Montana's laws governing dram shop liability and the potential liability of social hosts after an alcohol-related accident.

Montana's Dram Shop Law

Montana Revised Statutes section 27-1-710 states that an alcohol vendor may be held liable for furnishing alcohol to a person who then causes injury to another, if any of the following circumstances exist:

  • the person receiving the alcohol was under age 21, and the vendor either knew the person was underage or did not make a "reasonable attempt" to find out if the person was underage
  • the person receiving the beverage was "visibly intoxicated," or
  • the person receiving the beverage was forced or coerced into drinking it, or was told it was non-alcoholic.

Here is an example of Montana's dram shop law at work. Suppose that Dina stops by Tom's Tavern on her way home from work. She has several drinks at the tavern and becomes visibly intoxicated, slurring her speech, stumbling, and dropping her glass several times. Nevertheless, the tavern continues to serve her alcohol. Eventually, Dina gets up to leave but stumbles and falls against Paul, who is sitting on the bar stool beside Dina. Paul is knocked to the floor and is injured.

Paul may file a personal injury claim against Dina for injuring him. Under Montana's dram shop law, he may also file a claim against Tom's Tavern for serving alcohol to Dina after she became visibly intoxicated, leading to the accident. If Paul fell because the bar stool was unreasonably dangerous or defective, he might also have a premises liability claim against the tavern, a products liability claim against the manufacturer or seller of the bar stool, or both.

Social Host Liability in Montana

Montana's dram shop law specifies that it applies to a "person or entity" that furnishes alcohol. Montana courts have interpreted the law to mean that it applies not only to places licensed to sell or serve alcohol, but also to private social hosts who throw parties. However, social host liability in Montana is limited to only two situations:

  • the person receiving the alcohol was underage, and the host knew or should have known the person was underage, or
  • the person receiving the alcohol was forced or coerced into drinking it, or was told the drink was non-alcoholic.

A social host may not be held liable for damages in Montana for providing alcohol to a visibly intoxicated adult, unless one of the above two factors also applies.

Here is an example of a situation in which Montana's social host law might apply. Suppose that Don, a 16-year-old student, goes to a backyard barbecue hosted by his neighbor, Harold. During the party, Harold offers Don several drinks, which Don accepts. During the party, Don trips and falls down the basement stairs in Harold's house, knocking into Pamela as he falls. Both Don and Pamela fall to the bottom of the staircase and are injured.

Under Montana's social host law, Pamela may seek damages from Harold for providing alcohol to Don even though Harold knew or should have known Don was underage. If the fall occurred because the stairs were in an unreasonably dangerous condition -- for example, if there was no railing -- both Pamela and Don may also have a claim against Harold based in premises liability law.

Montana also holds social hosts responsible under its criminal laws if they provide alcohol to minors, even in a private home. Montana Revised Statutes section 16-6-305 makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to provide alcohol to underage drinkers for consumption in a private home, unless the adults providing the alcohol are the minor's parents and they provide it only in non-intoxicating amounts.

Damages and Time Limits in Montana Dram Shop Claims

Like other civil lawsuits in Montana, dram shop claims seek compensation in terms of money damages. Losses that are frequently pursued in these claims include:

  • medical and hospital bills
  • lost wages
  • damaged property, and
  • pain and suffering.

Montana law also "caps," or limits, damages in dram shop claims at $250,000 for all claims, regardless of how many people are injured. Punitive damages in these cases are also capped at $250,000, and are not available in all cases.

Like other civil claims for injury in Montana, a dram shop or social host liability claim must be filed within the state's three-year statute of limitations. Cases that are not filed within three years of the date of injury will almost certainly be dismissed by the court.

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