In New Hampshire, as in every state, if you are injured by an intoxicated person's negligence, you can bring a personal injury claim against that individual. But in some situations, your options for a legal remedy don't stop there. An injured person may also be able to bring a claim against the business (such as a bar or restaurant) or other third party that provided the alcohol to the intoxicated person. These are known as "dram shop" claims, based on the fact that alcohol was historically sold by a unit of measure called a "dram."
In this article, we'll look at third party liability for an alcohol-related accident in New Hampshire, including the state's dram shop laws, and the rules that affect social hosts who provide alcohol at parties and other events.
New Hampshire Revised Statutes section 507-F:4 states that "A defendant who negligently serves alcoholic beverages to a minor or to an intoxicated person is liable for resulting damages." In the context of this law, a business will be considered negligent if they know, "or if a reasonably prudent person in like circumstances would know that the person being served is a minor or is intoxicated." The law goes on to say that "Proof of service of alcoholic beverages to a minor without request for proof of age...shall be admissible as evidence of negligence."
For purposes of section 507-F:4, a "defendant" is any business licensed (or required to be licensed) to serve alcohol within the state, or any employee of such a business.
Here is an example of how this law works. Suppose that on his way home from work, Donnie stops at Bella's Bar for a few drinks. Although Donnie consumes five drinks and starts to slur his speech and have trouble walking around the barroom, the bartender continues to serve him. Eventually, Donnie leaves the bar and gets in his car. As he's pulling out of the bar's parking lot, he collides with Patricia, a pedestrian, on the sidewalk. Patricia is injured in the collision.
Patricia may bring a personal injury claim against Donnie for causing her injuries. She may also be able to bring a dram shop claim against Bella's Bar if the bartender knew or should have known Donnie was either under age 21 (a minor) or was intoxicated, according to section 507-F:4.
Remember that by definition, New Hampshire's dram shop statute applies only to businesses that are required to have a license to serve alcohol within the state.
However, in the 1995 cases Hickingbotham v. Burke and MacLeod v. Ball, the New Hampshire Supreme Court extended liability to certain social hosts who provide alcohol at private events. The result is that, in New Hampshire, in certain situations a social host can be held liable for serving alcohol to a minor or intoxicated person who then goes on to cause injuries.
Here is an illustration. Suppose that in the above example, instead of going to a bar, Donnie goes to a party hosted by his neighbor, Harry. Harry serves several drinks to Donnie, and continues to pour drinks for him even after Donnie has begun slurring his speech and having trouble walking. Eventually, Donnie stumbles onto the deck, where he collides with Patricia, knocking them both off the edge of the deck. Donnie and Patricia are both injured in the fall.
Once again, Patricia can seek damages from Donnie, on the theory that her injuries were caused by his negligence. She may also be able to file a social host claim against Harry for continuing to serve Donnie drinks even though Harry knew -- or a reasonable social host in Harry's position would have known -- that Donnie was intoxicated. If Donnie had been a minor under age 21, Patricia would also have a claim. Although Donnie may not file a social host liability claim against Harry, both Donnie and Patricia might have a premises liability claim against Harry if they fell because the deck itself was unreasonably dangerous.
Dram shop and social host liability cases are civil lawsuits. This means that liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages, which are paid to compensate the injured person for his or her injuries and other losses stemming from the underlying accident. Common damages that are sought in dram shop and social host liability claims include medical bills, lost wages, the lost value of household services and childcare performed by the injured person, property damage, and pain and suffering associated with the injury.
Like other personal injury cases, a dram shop or social host liability claim in New Hampshire must be filed before the deadline specified in the state's statute of limitations. In New Hampshire, if the claim is not filed within three years of the date of injury, the court will likely refuse to hear the case at all.