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

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

If you are injured by an intoxicated person's negligence in Tennessee, you can bring a personal injury claim directly against that individual. But your options for a legal remedy may not stop there. Sometimes, an injured person may also be able to bring a claim against the business or other third party that provided the alcohol to the intoxicated person.

In this article, we'll look at third party liability for an alcohol-related accident in Tennessee, including the state's dram shop laws, and the rules that affect social hosts who provide alcohol at parties and other events.

Dram Shop Law in Tennessee

Tennessee's s"dram shop" law, which can be found at section 57-10-102 of the Tennessee Code, allows a person who is injured by an intoxicated individual to seek damages from the vendor that sold the alcohol, but only in limited circumstances.

A dram shop claim may be brought in Tennessee if:

  • the vendor sold the alcohol to the intoxicated person
  • the person who purchased the beverage was a minor under age 21 or was "visibly intoxicated," and
  • the sale of the beverage was a direct cause of the injury.

In order for dram shop liability to apply, a 12-person jury must find that all the elements of a dram shop claim exist "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is a much higher bar than in most states, where dram shop liability -- which is civil liability, not criminal -- need only be proven by "a preponderance of the evidence" or by "clear and convincing evidence."

Here is an example of when Tennessee's dram shop law might apply. Suppose that Dale goes to Ted's Tavern for some drinks. The bartender notices that after a few rounds, Dale becomes confused, slurs his speech, and has trouble walking. Nonetheless, the bartender continues to sell and serve Dale alcohol. Eventually, Dale tries to stumble to the tavern's restroom, but he falls and collides with Patty, knocking her off her bar stool and injuring her.

Patty can bring a personal injury claim against Dale for causing the accident. Patty can also bring a dram shop claim against Ted's Tavern for selling Dale the alcohol that caused him to fall. Patty will succeed in her dram shop claim if the jury agrees, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ted's Tavern sold the alcohol to Dale, that Dale was visibly intoxicated at the time of the sale, and that the sale was the direct cause of Patty's injuries.

Dale may not bring a dram shop claim against Ted's Tavern, even if he was also injured in the fall. Tennessee law doesn't all for these kinds of "first-party" claims under section 57-10-102.

No Social Host Civil Liability in Tennessee

Tennessee's law allowing third-party civil liability for alcohol-related injuries is very clear that alcohol must be sold to the person who causes the injury -- not served to social guests free of charge. Consequently, a person injured by an intoxicated individual who was served alcohol at a social event may not be able to bring a claim against the hosts. The injured person may still bring a claim against the person who caused the injuries, however.

Tennessee does impose criminal liability on social hosts who provide alcohol to minors under age 21, or who allow minors to drink on their property. However, a person injured by a minor who drinks at a social event may not seek civil damages from the social host.

For example, suppose that Dina, a 19-year-old, goes to a party hosted by her neighbor, Howie. During the party, Dina has several glasses of wine, which Howie keeps pouring for her despite knowing she is under age 21. Eventually, Dina leaves the party and tries to drive to a friend's house. On the way, she runs a red light and collides with another car driven by Peter. Peter is injured in the crash.

In Tennessee, Peter may not bring a civil claim for damages against Howie for providing the alcohol, but Peter may sue Dina for causing the accident. Howie may face criminal liability for providing alcohol to Dina, however.

Damages and Time Limits in Tennessee Alcohol-Related Accident Claims

A dram shop claim in Tennessee is a civil case, which means that the alcohol vendor's liability is expressed in terms of money damages. Common types of damages sought in Tennessee dram shop claims include:

  • lost wages
  • the value of household services the injured person would have performed if not for the injury
  • medical bills
  • expenses for lost, damaged, or destroyed property, and
  • the plaintiff's pain and suffering in connection with the accident and injuries.

As with other injury claims in Tennessee, a dram shop claim must be filed before the deadline set by the state's "statute of limitations" expires. The applicable Tennessee statute of limitations requires that dram shop claims be filed within one year of the date of the injury.

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