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

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

If you've 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. An injured person might also be able to seek damages from a social host who provided alcohol to guests who were 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

Pennsylvania Liquor Code section 4-497 states that an alcohol vendor can't be held liable for the damages caused by an intoxicated customer unless the vendor sold or furnished alcohol to the customer while the customer was visibly intoxicated.

However, courts have held that this limit on liability—to allow claims only when a customer was visibly intoxicated when served—applies only to "legally competent" customers. So, a vendor that unlawfully provides alcohol to a minor can be held liable for damages subsequently caused by the intoxicated minor.

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 can seek damages directly from Dan for causing the accident through his negligence. And under Pennsylvania's dram shop law, Patty can seek damages from Ted's Tavern because the tavern continued to serve Dan after he was visibly intoxicated.

Minors and Social Host Liability in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania recognizes civil liability claims against social hosts who provide alcohol to minors who then cause harm to someone else. However, state law doesn't allow third-party claims who provide alcohol to guests who are at least 21 years old, even if the guest 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 can seek damages from Della for her injuries. She can also bring a social host liability claim against Hayden, who knew that Della was a minor but served her alcohol anyway.

Damages and Time Limits in Pennsylvania Alcohol-Related Accident Cases

Dram shop and social host liability claims for alcohol-related accidents are civil claims. So, 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. Common damages in these types of cases include:

  • 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.

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. But, given that every case is different, it's best to consult an attorney as soon as possible after suffering an injury to ensure your rights are protected.

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