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

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

Ohio is one of several states that allow civil injury lawsuits to be filed against businesses or social hosts who serve alcohol to someone who goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident. But like many states, Ohio limits the circumstances under which these kinds of claims can be filed.

This article examines Ohio law as it applies to third-party liability for an alcohol-related accident and looks at a few hypothetical situations where these laws might come into play.

Ohio's “Dram Shop” Law

Ohio Revised Code section 4399.18—Ohio’s “Dram shop” law—allows a person who has been injured by an intoxicated individual to seek damages from an alcohol vendor only if:

  • the injuries occurred on the vendor's property and were caused by the vendor's negligence, or
  • the injuries occurred off the vendor's property, the vendor "knowingly sold" alcohol to a “noticeably intoxicated” person or to a person under age 21, and the injuries were caused by the person’s intoxication.

Here is an example of a situation in which Ohio's dram shop law might apply: Suppose that Dan stops at Belle's Bar for a drink. After several rounds, Dan decides to go down the stairs into the bar's basement to shoot pool. As he tries to descend the stairs, he trips and falls, colliding with Penny, who is also on the staircase. Penny and Dan fall down the stairs and are injured.

Because the injury occurred on the bar's property, Penny can seek damages from Belle's Bar for her injuries only if she can show that her injuries resulted from the bar's negligence—for instance, if the bartender noticed Dan was too intoxicated to walk safely but kept serving him drinks and directed him to go down to the pool room knowing that the stairs were slippery from a recent spill. Penny can also seek damages from Dan for causing the accident on the theory that Dan was negligent himself.

Now suppose that instead of going down the stairs into the bar's basement, Dan left the bar and tried to drive home. On the way, he ran a stop sign and collided with Penny, who was a pedestrian using the crosswalk at the time. Because the accident took place away from the bar's property, Penny can only bring a dram shop claim if she can prove that Belle's Bar “knowingly sold” alcohol to Dan while he was either “noticeably intoxicated” or with the knowledge that Dan was under age 21.

Ohio Social Host Liability Law

Ohio's dram shop law applies only to vendors who are licensed to serve alcohol. Social hosts who provide alcohol to guests at private parties are not generally held responsible under Ohio law if an intoxicated guest injures someone else. The exception to this general rule is for social hosts who unlawfully provide alcohol to underage guests. A social host can be held liable if he or she provides alcohol to a minor under age 21 who then causes injuries in a vehicle accident.

Here’s an example of a situation in which Ohio's social host liability might allow an injured person to seek compensation from a social host. Suppose that Dena, a 19-year-old woman, goes to a party hosted by Hannah. Hannah serves alcohol to her party guests regardless of their ages, including Dena. At the end of the night, Dena leaves the party and tries to drive home. On the way, she swerves into the opposite lane and collides head-on with a car driven by Paul. Paul is injured in the crash.

Paul can bring a claim against Hannah under social host liability since Hannah gave alcohol to Dena despite the fact that Dena was under age 21. Paul can also seek compensation from Dena directly for his injuries.

Damages and Time Limits for Ohio Alcohol-Related Injury Lawsuits

Types of damages in a dram shop or social host liability claim might include:

  • medical bills
  • lost wages and benefits from time spent recovering, or from total disability that prevents one from earning wages in the future
  • lost value of household services or childcare the injured person would otherwise have performed
  • property damage, and
  • pain and suffering.

As with other injury claims, an alcohol-related injury lawsuit must be filed within the time limits set by Ohio's statute of limitations, which means the initial complaint generally must be filed in court within two years of the date of the accident. But every situation is different, so it’s best to get in contact with an attorney as soon as possible after an accident.

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