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

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

New Jersey is one of several states with a "dram shop" law. This is a civil statute that, in certain circumstances, allows you to bring a claim against a business that served or sold alcohol to someone who went on to cause an alcohol-related accident. In this article, we'll look at the particulars of New Jersey's dram shop law, as well as the state's rules on potential liability of social hosts who serve alcohol to guests.

New Jersey's Dram Shop Law

Section 2A:22A-4 of the New Jersey Revised Statutes says that any person who has been injured by an intoxicated individual may seek damages from a vendor who served the alcohol if:

  • the intoxicated individual was "visibly intoxicated" when served, or
  • the vendor knew or reasonably should have known the person being served was a minor under age 21.

(Important note: The person who was served alcohol and went on to cause an accident may not bring a claim against the vendor under New Jersey's dram shop law, even if he or she was also injured in the accident.)

Let's look at an example of New Jersey's dram shop law might work. Suppose that Dina stops at Thom's Tavern on her way home from work. She has several drinks, but even after she begins slurring her speech and having trouble walking, the bartender continues to serve her. Eventually, Dina teeters off her bar stool and heads for the bathrooms, which are in the basement. On her way down the basement stairs, she collides with Peter, who is climbing up the stairs. Peter is knocked down the basement steps and is injured.

Peter can file a personal injury claim against Dina for causing his injuries. He can also file a dram shop claim against the tavern for serving Dina alcohol although she was visibly intoxicated. If Dina is a minor under age 21 at the time of the accident, Peter would also have a dram shop claim against Thom's Tavern, and that's true even if Dina was not visibly intoxicated.

Under New Jersey law, Dina may not file a dram shop claim against the tavern, even if she was also injured in the fall. (It's a different story if Dina and Peter fell because the staircase was unreasonably dangerous. In that situation, both parties might have a claim against the tavern under New Jersey premises liability law.)

Social Host Liability in New Jersey

New Jersey also allows an injured person to seek damages from any social host who provided alcohol to an intoxicated person (at a party or similar event) when that guest goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident -- the definition of "provided," according to Section 2A:15-5.5 of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, includes self-service of alcohol at parties and alcohol that other guests might bring to a party.

An injured person may seek damages from a social host if the social host provided alcohol to an intoxicated person who causes harm, and:

  • the person was visibly intoxicated in the presence of the host, or
  • the beverages were provided "under circumstances manifesting reckless disregard of the consequences" to another, and
  • the circumstances created an "unreasonable risk" of harm to life or property, and
  • the injury resulted from a motor vehicle accident caused by the intoxicated person who was served by the social host.

Here is an example in which New Jersey's social host liability law might apply. Suppose that in the above example, Dina and Peter are at a neighborhood party hosted by Harriet. Harriet has set out a keg of beer for guests to help themselves, and she does not intervene to stop Dina from refilling her cup at the keg even after Harriet observes Dina stumbling, slurring her speech, and getting into arguments with other guests. Eventually, Dina climbs into her car and backs down the driveway at full speed. She backs into Peter, who is injured by the collision.

As with the dram shop claim we discussed in the first example, Dina cannot seek damages from Harriet even if she was also injured in the accident. However, Peter may seek damages for his injuries arising from the motor vehicle accident. He may seek damages both from Dina and from Harriet, who provided alcohol to Dina even though she observed Dina's visible intoxication.

Damages and Lawsuit Filing Time Limits

Liability in dram shop and social host cases is expressed solely in terms of money damages, paid by the defendant (or the defendant's insurer) to the injured person. Common damages in these kinds of cases include:

  • medical and hospital bills
  • bills for rehabilitation or therapy
  • lost wages
  • the value of household services and childcare the injured person would otherwise have performed
  • property damage, and
  • pain and suffering.

New Jersey also allows those injured in dram shop and social host liability claims to seek punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are intended to punish particularly bad cases of wrongdoing, including gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional bad behavior. Learn more about Damages in Personal Injury Cases.

Like other personal injury claims, a New Jersey dram shop claim must be filed within two years of the date or injury in order to be heard in court. This deadline is imposed by a state law known as a "statute of limitations."

For more information on civil liability for DUIs and other incidents, check out all the articles in our Alcohol-Related Accidents and Injuries topic.

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