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

If you’ve been hurt by a drunk person in New Jersey, can you hold a third party liable for providing 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

Suppose you suffered an alcohol-related injury in New Jersey. Maybe you were hit by a drunk driver, or hurt by an intoxicated neighbor at a pool party. You might make a claim for compensation ("damages," in legal-speak) against the person who injured you. But what if they don't have insurance or other assets to pay for your injuries?

Like many states, New Jersey has "dram shop" and "social host liability" statutes that might allow you to recover damages from whoever sold alcohol to the person who hurt you. After a quick review of liquor liability laws generally, we'll take a closer look at what New Jersey law has to say.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

For much of our country's history, liquor liability—laws making someone who sells or furnishes alcohol legally responsible for the damages caused by their drunk customers or guests—was the exception, not the rule. Why? Alcohol-related accidents were thought to be caused by drinking alcohol, not by furnishing it. That's still the prevailing thought in many states today.

This general rule of nonliability often produced unfair results, like those described in our introduction. In response, state lawmakers (and in some cases, state courts) crafted liquor liability laws. These laws commonly come in one of two forms.

Dram shop laws. Long ago, bars and taverns sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram." Customers started calling these businesses "dram shops." Today, a dram shop law is usually a statute that makes a liquor licensee—a person or business licensed by the state to sell alcohol—liable for injuries caused by their drunk customers. Most often, liability is limited to cases where the customer was underage or was clearly drunk when the licensee provided them with alcohol.

Social host liability laws. Though less common than dram shop laws, many states also have social host liability laws. "Social host" is just a fancy legal name for someone who hosts a party or other social function. When the liquor flows freely, guests occasionally overindulge. A social host liability law makes the party host responsible for injuries caused by drunk party guests. In some states, social hosts are only liable for providing alcohol (or a place to drink it) to minors.

New Jersey Dram Shop Law

You'll find New Jersey's dram shop act at title 2A, chapter 22A, of the New Jersey statutes. A licensee is liable for injuries caused by furnishing alcoholic beverages only when these three elements are satisfied.

The licensee was negligent. A licensee is negligent when the licensee furnishes alcohol to:

  • a visibly intoxicated person, or
  • a person under the legal drinking age, when the licensee knew or should have known the person was underage.

Visible intoxication means acting in a way that shows "clear signs" of intoxication. (N.J. Stat. § 2A:22A-3 (2023).)

The negligence caused injury. The licensee's negligence in furnishing alcohol to a visibly intoxicated or underage customer must have caused injuries.

The injuries were foreseeable. The resulting injuries must have been a foreseeable result of the licensee's negligence.

(N.J. Stat. § 2A:22A-5 (2023).)

New Jersey Social Host Liability

New Jersey has a social host liability statute that applies to party guests of legal drinking age. New Jersey case law also makes a social host responsible for injuries caused by intoxicated underage guests.

The Social Host Liability Statutes

New Jersey's social host liability statutes are codified at N.J. Stat. §§ 2A:15-5.5 to 2A:15-5.7 (2023). For purposes of these statutes, the term "social host" means someone who isn't a licensee and who provides alcohol to a person of legal drinking age.

When a social host negligently provides alcoholic beverages to a person who's old enough to legally drink and who then causes injuries, the social host is liable if each of these elements is met.

The guest was visibly intoxicated. A social host is only responsible for knowingly serving a guest who is visibly intoxicated, usually in the host's presence. "Visibly intoxicated" has the same meaning here as it does under the dram shop statute.

The host was negligent. The host must have:

  • provided alcohol under circumstances that created an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm, and
  • failed to act reasonably and diligently to avoid that risk.

The injuries arose from a car accident. The injuries must have resulted from negligent operation of a motor vehicle by the intoxicated guest.

(N.J. Stat. § 2A:15-5.6(b) (2023).)

Under N.J. Stat. § 2A:15-5.6(c) (2023), there's an irrebuttable presumption that the guest who caused injuries was not visibly intoxicated if a breath or blood test shows a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of less than .10%. Because the presumption is irrebuttable, a BAC of less than .10% conclusively defeats the first required social host liability element, and with it, the claim for damages.

If the guest had a BAC of at least .10% but less than .15%, there's a rebuttable presumption that the guest was not visibly intoxicated. A rebuttable presumption means the injured person can put on other evidence of visible intoxication, such as:

  • slurred speech
  • repetitive speech patterns
  • lack of physical coordination
  • stumbling, staggering, weaving, or falling while trying to walk
  • inability to stand up, and
  • anger, aggression, or emotionally inappropriate behavior.

New Jersey Case Law

New Jersey's social host statute doesn't cover situations where a social host provides alcohol to underage drinkers, or allows them to drink on the host's property. New Jersey courts have stepped in to fill this gap.

For instance, suppose a social host negligently allows a minor to drink alcohol on the host's property. The minor then causes a car wreck that results in injuries. The injured party might have a social host liability claim for negligently giving the underage drinker a place to drink. (See Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, 211 A.3d 737 (2019).)

Damages and Lawsuit Filing Time Limits

If you succeed with a New Jersey dram shop or social host liability case, you're entitled to collect compensatory damages to compensate you for your injuries and other losses. Common damages in these kinds of cases include:

  • medical and hospital bills
  • amounts you pay for rehabilitation or therapy
  • lost wages and employment benefits
  • the value of household services and childcare services you had to pay someone else to do
  • property damage, and
  • pain and suffering.

You might also be able to collect punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are intended to punish particularly bad cases of wrongdoing, including gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional misbehavior.

New Jersey puts a time limit, called a "statute of limitations," on filing a dram shop or social host liability lawsuit in court. The state considers these to be a type of personal injury claim, so the personal injury limitation period found in N.J. Stat. § 2A:14-2(a) (2023) applies. As a general rule, you have two years, usually from the date you were hurt, to file your lawsuit in court.

What happens if you try to file a lawsuit after the limitation period has expired? Absent an exception that extends the deadline for filing, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case. You'll be barred from collecting any compensation for your injuries.

Next Steps

It's a common belief that liquor liability cases are easy to win. In practice, the opposite is true. Licensees, social hosts, and their insurers often vigorously defend these claims, betting that if the case goes to trial, a jury will place all the blame—or nearly all of it—on the drunk person.

In addition to understanding dram shop and social host liability claims and what's needed to prove them, you also need to know how New Jersey courts have interpreted the state's liquor liability statutes and applied them in past cases like yours.

Your best chance of success will come from having experienced legal counsel in your corner. If you're ready to move forward with your liquor liability case, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you.

Make the Most of Your Claim
Get the compensation you deserve.
We've helped 285 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you