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

When you’re hurt by a drunk person in Pennsylvania, can you get compensation from whoever sold or served them the alcohol?

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

You're on your way home after a late night at work. Suddenly, a car swerves across the center line and hits you head-on, causing you serious injuries. Later, you learn that the other driver spent the evening drinking at a local bar and had a blood alcohol level more than three times Pennsylvania's legal limit. You try to bring a claim against the other driver, only to discover they were uninsured.

Can you sue the bar that served alcohol to the driver? In Pennsylvania, the answer is: Possibly yes. We start by taking a quick look at liquor liability laws in general. From there, we'll examine Pennsylvania law to find out when bars, other liquor retailers, and party hosts can be held responsible for damages caused by their drunk customers or guests.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

Unless there's a state law—a statute or a court decision—that says otherwise, generally there's no legal liability for serving alcohol to a person who's of legal drinking age, even if that person is obviously drunk. Alcohol-related accidents, the thinking goes, are caused not by serving or selling alcohol, but by drinking it.

Of course, different rules apply to supplying alcohol to minors. That's illegal in every state, except in narrow circumstances that don't concern us here. In addition to criminal penalties, many states allow those injured by intoxicated minors to sue whoever sold or served them alcoholic beverages.

As to liability for supplying intoxicants to adults, most states have liquor liability laws that override the general no liability rule—at least in some situations. These laws come in two forms.

Dram Shop Laws

A typical dram shop law makes liquor "licensees"—people or businesses licensed by the state to sell or serve alcohol to the public—legally responsible for injuries caused by their drunk customers. While most states have a dram shop law, they're often limited in scope. Liability usually extends only to a licensee that sells or serves intoxicants to an underage customer or someone who's visibly intoxicated.

Social Host Liability Laws

A social host is a person who hosts a party or similar get together. Liquor often flows freely at these events. It's not unusual for some guests to drink too much. When a drunk party guest injures someone, a social host liability law makes the host legally responsible.

These laws are common but once again, they tend to be limited. In most states with a social host liability law, the host is only on the hook for injuries that happen when they serve an underage drinker, or they let minors drink on their property.

Pennsylvania Dram Shop Law

Pennsylvania has two dram shop statutes. Let's take a closer look at them.

The Pennsylvania Dram Shop Statutes

The first statute, found at 47 P.S. § 4-493(1) (2024), makes it illegal for a licensee to sell or serve alcohol to a person who's "visibly intoxicated," or to a minor. This law seems quite straightforward. A licensee can be liable for damages caused by selling to or serving:

  • a visibly intoxicated person, or
  • a minor, whether or not the minor was intoxicated when the licensee sold or served alcohol to them.

The second statute, 47 P.S. § 4-497 (2024), might cause some confusion. It says that a licensee can only be liable for injuries that happen off the licensee's premises when the licensee sold or served alcoholic beverages to a "customer" who was "visibly intoxicated." Does this mean that as to minors, a licensee is only liable for selling to them when they're visibly drunk?


Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor Who's Not Intoxicated Violates Pennsylvania's Dram Shop Law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court cleared up the confusion in a decision called Matthews v. Konieczny, 527 A.2d 508 (Pa. 1987). There, minors who weren't intoxicated bought beer from licensees. Those minors gave the beer to other underage drinkers who became drunk and caused auto accidents, injuring themselves and others. The licensees argued that under 47 P.S. § 4-497, they weren't liable for the injuries because the minors weren't drunk when they bought the beer.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed. The court ruled that the term "customer" in 47 P.S. § 4-497 referred only to "legally competent" customers, meaning those who were old enough to buy alcoholic beverages under Pennsylvania law. Since minors—intoxicated or not—couldn't legally buy beer, they weren't "customers" and 47 P.S. § 4-497 wasn't applicable.

That left only 47 P.S. § 4-493(1), which made it illegal to sell to minors even if they weren't intoxicated at the time. Long story short: The licensees were legally responsible for injuries caused by the underage drinkers.

Summary of Pennsylvania Dram Shop Law

In the wake of the Matthews decision, 47 P.S. § 4-493(1) is really the controlling Pennsylvania dram shop statute. Licensees can be held legally responsible for damages caused (in whole or in part) by selling or serving alcoholic beverages to a visibly intoxicated person or a minor, whether or not the minor was intoxicated at the time of the sale.

A blood alcohol level over the legal limit can be evidence of intoxication, but by itself doesn't prove that a person was visibly intoxicated. (See Johnson v. Harris, 615 A.2d 771 (Pa. Super. 1992).) Proving visible intoxication requires evidence of the common signs that a person is drunk, including:

  • slurred speech
  • an inability to stand without swaying or falling
  • an unsteady gait
  • stumbling and falling
  • repeating speech patterns
  • anger, belligerence, or other emotionally inappropriate behavior, and
  • passing out.

Pennsylvania Social Host Liability

Under Pennsylvania law, a social host isn't liable for injuries caused by a drunk party guest if the guest was of legal drinking age. But a social host can be liable for injuries that happen when the host:

  • supplies alcohol to underage drinkers, or
  • allows underage drinkers to drink on the host's property.

Liability extends both to the minor (first-party liability) and to anyone else the minor injures (third-party liability).

First-Party Liability

Suppose that Della, a 19-year-old student, goes to a party hosted by her neighbor, Hayden. Hayden is aware that Della isn't 21 years old, but he serves her several drinks anyway. While dancing on the back deck, Della trips and falls backward down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm and two ribs.

Della can bring a first-party social host liability claim against Hayden. Hayden furnished Della with alcohol in violation of Pennsylvania law, making him negligent. Hayden likely will respond that Della should share some of the fault for her accident, since she got drunk and fell. This comparative fault defense will probably reduce (or might even eliminate) Hayden's responsibility for Della's damages.

Third-Party Liability

Let's continue with the example above. Suppose that after becoming drunk, Della trips and collides with Peggy. Peggy falls down the flight of stairs and is hurt. Peggy can bring a third-party social host liability claim against Hayden for unlawfully serving alcohol to Della.

Damages in Pennsylvania Alcohol-Related Accident Cases

If you succeed with a Pennsylvania dram shop or social host liability claim, you can collect damages from the responsible licensee or social host. In most cases, you'll receive compensatory damages, meant to compensate you for your injuries and other losses. Typical compensatory damages include:

  • medical, hospital, rehabilitation, and pharmacy bills related to your injuries, treatment, and recovery
  • lost wages and benefits, both past and future, for time you miss from work
  • amounts you have to pay for replacement household and childcare services
  • costs to repair or replace damaged or destroyed property
  • emotional distress
  • pain and suffering, and
  • loss of enjoyment of life.

In cases involving extreme or outrageous misconduct, punitive damages might be available. Punitive damages don't compensate you for injuries. Instead, they're intended to punish a wrongdoer and deter others from acting the same way in the future. In Pennsylvania, as in most states, punitive damages are rarely awarded.

Deadline for Filing Your Case in Court

There's a deadline, called a "statute of limitations," for filing your dram shop or social host liability case in court. Found at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2) (2024), the statute of limitations gives you two years, usually beginning on the date you were injured, to file your lawsuit. In some circumstances, you might have a little more time. But don't count on it.

What happens if you try to file your case after the deadline has expired? It could be a costly mistake. The party you're suing (called the "defendant") will ask the court to dismiss your suit. If there's no exception giving you additional time to file, the court will have to grant the defendant's request. You'll lose your right to seek damages for your injuries.

Get Help With Your Case

On the surface, it might seem that a dram shop or social host liability case should be a no-brainer. A bar over serves a drunk customer, who then gets into a wreck and badly injures or kills someone. How could a case get any easier?

Not so fast. To handle a case like that on your own, you'll need to be familiar with claim and lawsuit procedures, which can be complicated and confusing. You'll also need to know how Pennsylvania courts interpret the dram shop statutes, and how those statutes might apply to the facts of your case. You'll be up against experienced dram shop lawyers who know their way around these claims.

To make it a fair fight, you should have expert legal help on your side. If you're ready to move forward with your Pennsylvania liquor liability case, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you.

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