Suppose you've been injured by a drunk person in New York. You can bring a claim or file a lawsuit to collect compensation (what the law calls "damages") from that person. But what happens if they don't have insurance or assets you can look to for payment?
Your only option might be to pursue the person or business that provided the alcohol. Are you allowed to do that under New York law? Yes, possibly so. In some circumstances, New York lets you bring a claim against a liquor seller or a social host who furnishes intoxicants to a person who later injures you.
We start with a quick overview of liquor liability laws generally. Then we'll turn our attention to the particulars of New York law.
The general rule for liquor liability is simple: There's no liability (legal responsibility) for selling or furnishing intoxicants, even to a person who's visibly intoxicated. Why? Alcohol-related accidents, the thinking goes, aren't caused by selling alcohol but by drinking it.
Though it might be appealing in its simplicity, this general rule can produce harsh and unfair results. Most states have departed from it, at least in limited circumstances, by enacting dram shop and social host liability laws.
"Dram shop" is a slang term used to describe bars and taverns, which used to sell liquor by a measurement called a "dram." Today, a dram shop law is usually a state statute that makes a liquor licensee—a person or business licensed by the state to sell alcoholic beverages to the public—legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk customers.
Most states have a dram shop law. Typically, dram shop liability is limited to circumstances where a licensee provides alcohol to underage or visibly intoxicated customers, who then cause injuries to others.
A "social host" is simply someone who hosts a party or other social gathering. When the liquor starts to flow, some guests overindulge. A social host liability law holds the party host legally responsible for injuries caused by drunk partygoers.
While many states have a social host liability law, they're not as common as dram shop laws. Where they exist, they often apply only to party hosts who furnish alcohol to underage drinkers or allow underage drinkers to drink on their property.
Three statutes make up New York's liquor liability laws.
Under N.Y. Alc. Bev. Cont. Law § 65 (2024), it's illegal to sell alcoholic beverages to any person who is:
What about fake IDs? Is a sale illegal if a customer produces a real-looking fake ID? There's some legal authority suggesting that an alcohol seller can reasonably rely on a realistic looking ID, even if it's later shown to be fake. But that authority arose in the context of a licensing question, not in the context of liability for an unlawful sale under this statute.
If that authority does apply to this statute, it's clear that reasonable reliance requires the seller to act in good faith. That is, the seller must make a good faith effort to compare the ID to the person who presents it to determine whether it's authentic.
Visible intoxication. Proof of visible intoxication means evidence of common signs of intoxication, including:
Blood alcohol content is evidence of intoxication. But by itself, it's not sufficient proof. The same is true of expert medical or other testimony.
As we'll see, the New York dram shop and social host liability laws are tied to this statute. Both depend on proof of an illegal sale of alcohol.
If you're injured by an intoxicated person, you can bring a claim for damages against any person who caused or contributed to their intoxication by unlawfully selling liquor to the intoxicated person. (N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 11-101(1) (2024).)
As interpreted and applied by New York courts, here are the elements of a dram shop claim. There must be:
The dram shop law only applies to sales of liquor. In addition, the sale must be directly to a visibly intoxicated person. Selling liquor to a third party who then furnishes it to the intoxicated person won't suffice. Finally, selling liquor to an underage drinker only violates the dram shop law if they were visibly intoxicated at the time of the sale.
New York's social host liability law, found at N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 11-100 (2024), applies to any person who provides alcoholic beverages to an underage drinker, meaning a person younger than 21 years old. There's no liability under this law for providing alcohol to a person who's legally old enough to drink.
To make out a viable social host liability claim, you'll need to show that the person you're suing (the "defendant"):
Under this law, one minor can be liable for unlawfully furnishing alcohol to another minor. The fact that an adult is present at a party where minors are drinking doesn't cause liability, unless the adult actually furnished them with alcohol. Under the social host liability statute, an underage drinker need not be visibly intoxicated at the time the alcohol is provided.
You can also be awarded punitive damages in a claim under New York's dram shop law—but not under the social host liability statute. Punitive damages aren't meant to compensate you for your injuries. Instead, they're intended to punish a wrongdoer for extreme and outrageous misconduct.
Like every state, New York has deadlines, called "statutes of limitations," for filing a liquor liability lawsuit in court. In most cases, you have three years, usually from the date you're injured, to sue. (N.Y. Civ. Pract. Law & R. § 214(5) (2024).)
If your injuries result from an assault or a battery, you have just one year from the date of your injury to file a lawsuit. (N.Y. Civ. Pract. Law & R. § 215(3) (2024).)
What happens if you miss the deadline and try to file late? Absent an exception that gives you more time to file, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case. You'll lose your right to seek compensation for your injuries, forever.
People often mistakenly think that dram shop and social host liability claims are a slam-dunk. A person gets drunk and injures or kills someone. How could a case get any easier? Guess again. These cases can be, and often are, deceptively difficult.
For starters, you need to understand how legal claims and lawsuits work. If you aren't familiar with legal practice and procedures, that alone will be an uphill climb. On top of that, you must understand how New York courts interpret and apply the liquor liability statutes in cases like yours.
You can bet that the defendant will be represented by an attorney. To make it a fair fight, you should be too. Here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you and your case.