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

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

By , Attorney

Under New Jersey law, the injured party in an alcohol-related accident can sometimes go after the person who provided the alcohol to pay for the damages. New Jersey has a "dram shop" law that holds alcohol vendors liable in some circumstances for the damages or injuries caused by intoxicated patrons. And New Jersey law also allows injured parties to bring lawsuits against social hosts who provide alcohol to guests who later cause accidents in certain situations.

In this article, we'll look at the particulars of New Jersey's dram shop law, as well as the state's rules on the potential liability of social hosts who serve alcohol to guests.

New Jersey's Dram Shop Law

New Jersey's dram shop law says that any person who has been injured by an intoxicated individual can 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 under age 21.

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 barstool 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 might also have a dram shop claim against Thom's Tavern (if the bartender knew or reasonably should have known that Dina was underage), and that's true even if Dina was not visibly intoxicated.

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 of lawful drinking age (at a party or similar event) when that guest goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident. To make a successful claim, the injured party generally must prove:

  • the person who caused the injuries was visibly intoxicated in the presence of the host, or
  • 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.

The social host liability state provides that there is an irrebuttable presumption that the guest who caused injuries was not visibly intoxicated if a chemical test shows a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of less than .10%. And, if the guest had a BAC of at least .10% but less than .15%, there is a rebuttable presumption that the guest was not visibly intoxicated.

Although New Jersey's social host law provides a remedy for injured parties in the specified circumstances, it does not prohibit all other types of social host liability lawsuits. For instance, if a social host negligently serves a minor who then causes harm to someone else, the injured party might have a viable claim against the social host for negligence.

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.

Here, Peter can seek damages from Dina who directly caused his injuries, and from Harriet for providing 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.

Like other personal injury claims, a New Jersey dram shop claim generally must be filed within two years of the date of injury in order to be heard in court. But the facts of every case are different, so you should get in contact with an attorney as soon as possible after suffering an injury to ensure that your rights are protected.

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