When an alcohol-related accident occurs -- motor vehicle crash or otherwise -- an injured person in Rhode Island can usually seek damages directly from the person who caused the accident. And in some situations, the injured person may also seek damages from a business that sold alcohol to the person who caused the accident. The laws that govern these claims are sometimes called "dram shop" laws.
In this article, we'll look at Rhode Island's rules governing third party liability for alcohol-related accidents.
Rhode Island General Statutes section 3-14-6 and section 3-14-7 establish a civil claim for damages against an alcohol vendor that sells, serves, or gives alcohol to a minor or a "visibly intoxicated" person who goes on to cause an accident.
Rhode Island also distinguishes between serving alcohol "negligently" and serving it "recklessly." A vendor may be liable for damages in a dram shop claim whether service was negligent or reckless. However, "negligent" service occurs when the vendor "knows or a reasonable and prudent person in similar circumstances would know" that the person being served was a minor or was visibly intoxicated. "Reckless" service occurs when a vendor provides alcohol intentionally to someone the vendor knows is a minor or is visibly intoxicated, and "the server consciously disregards an obvious and substantial risk" that if the person is served liquor, substantial harm will result.
Here is an example of a situation where Rhode Island's dram shop law might apply. Suppose that Dina stops at Belle's Bar for a few drinks. The bartender continues serving drinks to Dina even after Dina becomes disoriented, starts slurring her speech, and clearly has difficulty walking. Eventually, Dina stumbles out of the bar and gets in her vehicle. As she pulls out of the bar's parking lot, she hits Penny, a pedestrian, injuring her.
Penny may sue Dina directly for causing the pedestrian-car accident. Penny may also decide to file a dram shop claim against Belle's Bar for continuing to serve Dina alcohol even after Dina had become "visibly intoxicated." If Dina is over age 21, she will not be able to bring a dram shop claim against the bar herself. However, if she is a minor, Dina has a dram shop claim against the bar under Rhode Island law if she is also injured in the accident.
Civil liability for social hosts who provide alcohol to guests is limited in Rhode Island. The state's criminal laws penalize social hosts who provide alcohol to minors, but a person who is injured by a guest who has been served alcohol by a social host cannot generally bring a social host liability claim to court unless a "special relationship" exists between the guest and the host.
Rhode Island courts defined "special relationship" in a case called Willis v. Omar. The court explained that a "special relationship" exists when a social host provides alcohol to underage guests, and that it becomes the social host's duty to protect those underage guests from harm. So far, the courts have not held that a "special relationship" can exist between a host and a guest who is old enough to drink legally.
So, a minor who drinks at a social party may have a social host liability claim if he or she is injured at the party as a result of the drinking -- but a person who is injured by a minor who has been drinking at a party may not have such a claim, if that person does not have a similar "special relationship" with the host. This situation makes Rhode Island's social host liability law a little unusual.
Here is an example of how Rhode Island's social host liability law might work. Suppose that David, a 19-year-old, goes to a party hosted by his neighbor, Henry. Henry allows David free access to the bar, and David has several drinks. While dancing on the back deck with his 22-year-old friend Pat, David stumbles and knocks both himself and Pat off the deck. Both David and Pat are injured in the fall.
In most states, Pat might have a social host liability claim against Henry for providing alcohol to David. In Rhode Island, however, it is David who has the social host liability claim against Henry, for Henry's failure to meet his "special relationship" duty to protect David from harm.
A dram shop or social host liability claim, like any other kind of personal injury case, must be filed within the time limit set by Rhode Island's statute of limitations, which says that you have three years -- starting from the date of injury -- to get the case started in the state's civil court system.
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