North Carolina Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents

How a vendor or social host might be held liable for providing alcohol to someone who later causes an accident.

By | Updated By John McCurley, Attorney

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 most states, including North Carolina, your options for a legal remedy don't necessarily stop there. In certain circumstances, an injured person might also be able to bring a claim against a business or other third party that provided alcohol to the intoxicated person. These are sometimes known as "dram shop" or "social host liability" claims, depending on whether the alcohol provider was a vendor or social host.

In this article, we'll look at third-party liability for an alcohol-related accident in North Carolina, including the state's dram shop laws and the rules that apply to social hosts who provide alcohol at parties and other events.

North Carolina's Dram Shop Law

North Carolina General Statutes section 18B-121 only allows an injured person to hold an alcohol vendor liable if:

  • the vendor "negligently" sells or serves alcohol to a minor under age 21
  • the minor causes a car accident while under the influence of the alcohol that was sold or served, and
  • the accident and resulting injuries were "proximately caused" by the minor's negligent driving while intoxicated.

Unlike many states, which allow an injured person to hold a business liable regardless of the intoxicated person's age, North Carolina's dram shop law limits liability to injuries in motor vehicle accidents caused by an intoxicated minor.

However, even if a situation doesn't fit the dram shop law description, the injured party might still have a remedy on some other basis such as a traditional negligence lawsuit. For instance, an injury party might file a negligence claim against a vendor for continuing to serve a visibly intoxicated patron who later causes an accident.

Here is an example of a situation in which North Carolina's dram shop law might apply. Suppose that Dina, a 19-year-old woman, stops at Rita's Restaurant on her way home from work. Dina sits down at the bar inside Rita's and orders a drink. The bartender notices that Dina looks very young, but doesn't ask for her ID. Dina has several drinks and eventually starts to slur her speech, stumble as she walks, and look very confused, but the bartender continues to serve her. Eventually, Dina leaves the bar and gets back into her car. As she pulls out of the restaurant's parking lot, she hits Paul, a pedestrian, who is walking on the sidewalk. Paul is injured in the accident.

Paul can sue Dina directly for causing the car-pedestrian accident. However, he can also seek compensation from Rita's Restaurant if he can demonstrate that the restaurant served Dina alcohol "negligently," either because it failed to check her ID or because it continued to serve Dina alcohol even after she became clearly intoxicated.

North Carolina Social Host Liability

A series of North Carolina court decisions have opened the door to potential civil liability for private hosts who serve alcohol in a social setting. Case law has established that when an intoxicated social guest causes an accident, the injured person may be able to seek damages from the social host if:

  • the host served or provided the alcohol
  • the host knew or should have known the person being served was intoxicated, and
  • the host knew the person would be driving after being served alcohol.

Here is an example of a situation in which social host liability might apply. Suppose that Donald drives himself to a party hosted by Holly. Holly serves drinks at the party, and although she knows Donald plans to drive himself home, she continues to serve Donald drinks even after he begins stumbling as he walks and slurring his speech. At the end of the night, Donald tries to drive himself home. On the way, Donald crosses the center line and crashes head-on into a car driven by Philip. Philip is injured in the accident.

Philip can seek damages from Donald for causing the accident. He may also decide to file a social host liability claim against Holly because Holly kept serving Donald alcohol even after he showed signs of intoxication, when she knew Donald was planning to drive.

Damages and Time Limits in North Carolina Alcohol-Related Accident Claims

North Carolina General Statutes section 18B-123 limits the amount of available compensation (damages) in a dram shop claim to $500,000 per alcohol-related accident, regardless of how many people are injured.

Like other negligence-based claims in North Carolina, a dram shop or social host liability claim must be filed within the time limit set out in the state's "statute of limitations." Generally, the statute of limitations requires that the injured party file the claim within three years of the date of injury in most cases. But every case is different. So, you should consult an attorney as soon as possible after an injury to ensure that your legal rights are protected.

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