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

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

If you have been injured in any kind of accident caused by an intoxicated person in Pennsylvania, the state's laws might allow you to bring a civil "dram shop" claim for damages against the business that sold or served alcohol to the intoxicated person, under certain circumstances. Injured persons may also seek damages from social hosts who provide alcohol to minors under age 21.

In this article, we'll look at the details of Pennsylvania law when it comes to third party liability for alcohol-related accidents.

Dram Shop Law in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Liquor Code governs dram shop liability in the state. Section 4-497 states that an alcohol vendor may be held liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated person if the vendor sold, furnished, or gave alcohol to the intoxicated person while he or she was "visibly intoxicated."

Pennsylvania courts have also recognized that a violation of the liquor code is "negligence per se" -- meaning there's no need for the claimant to prove anything else in the way of the alcohol vendor's liability -- and that many violations of the liquor code will support a civil claim for dram shop liability.

For instance, a person who is injured by an intoxicated individual may have a dram shop claim against a vendor who served alcohol to a person who was under 21, "insane," a "habitual drunkard," or a "person of known untempered habits."

Here is an example of Pennsylvania's dram shop law at work. Suppose that Dan stops at Ted's Tavern for a few drinks. Dan becomes unsteady, begins slurring his speech, and has trouble holding his glass, but the bartender keeps serving him alcohol. Finally, Dan tries to leave the bar but trips on the front steps, colliding with Patty, who is entering the bar. Dan and Patty fall and are both injured.

Patty may seek damages directly from Dan for causing the accident through his negligence. And under Pennsylvania's dram shop law, Patty may seek damages from Ted's Tavern, because the tavern continued to serve Dan after he was "visibly intoxicated." Dan may not sue Ted's Tavern under the state's dram shop law, since he is the one who was intoxicated.

Minors and Social Host Liability in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania recognizes civil liability claims against social hosts who provide alcohol to minors, if the minor then causes harm to someone else. However, the state does not recognize similar claims involving intoxicated adults, even if the adult was "visibly intoxicated."

For example, suppose that Della, a 19-year-old student, goes to a party hosted by her neighbor, Hayden. Hayden is aware that Della is not 21 years old, but he serves her several drinks nonetheless. While dancing on the back deck, Della collides with another party guest, Peggy. Della and Peggy fall off the deck and are injured.

Peggy may seek damages from Della for her injuries. She may also bring a social host liability claim against Hayden, who knew that Della was a minor but served her alcohol anyway. Hayden may also face criminal liability under state or local laws prohibiting the provision of alcohol to minors under 21.

Damages and Time Limits in Pennsylvania Alcohol-Related Accident Cases

Dram shop and social host liability claims for alcohol-related accidents are civil claims. This means that the injured person files a lawsuit against the vendor or host in court, and liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages.

Damages are intended to compensate the injured person for losses suffered in and stemming from the accident, including:

  • medical, hospital, rehabilitation, and pharmacy bills related to the injury
  • lost wages and other compensation, if the injured person must miss work due to injury
  • the value of lost future wages, if the injury prevents the person from working in the future
  • the value of household services and childcare the injured person would have performed if the injury had not occurred
  • property damage, and
  • pain and suffering.

Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.

Like other civil injury claims, a dram shop or social host claim must be filed within the time limit set by the state's "statute of limitations," which means within two years of the date of injury, in most situations. To learn more about what to expect in a civil lawsuit for injuries, check out this Personal Injury Lawsuit Timeline.

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