Suppose you're injured by an intoxicated person in Tennessee. Maybe a drunk driver ran a red light, hit you, and you suffered serious personal injuries. You can bring a personal injury claim directly against that person. But what if they're uninsured, and don't have any other property—cash or other assets—to cover your losses?
Under Tennessee law, you might have other options. In particular, you might be able to bring a claim against whoever provided the alcohol to the drunk person who hurt you.
We begin with a quick review of liquor liability laws generally. From there, we'll take a closer look at Tennessee's dram shop and social host liability rules.
States were slow to adopt laws creating legal responsibility for taverns, restaurants, and other sellers of alcoholic beverages. Fault for alcohol-related accidents, state lawmakers argued, rested with those who drank alcohol, not those who sold or served it. This rule has a certain appeal, as it places blame on the most obvious bad actor.
The problem is that it sometimes leaves innocent injury victims without a legal remedy. What happens when—as often happens—an uninsured drunk driver causes a wreck that results in serious injuries? Eventually, most states responded to this concern by enacting liquor liability rules called dram shop and social host liability laws.
Long ago, taverns and bars sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram," which led to them sometimes being called "dram shops." Today, dram shop laws usually are directed at retail sellers of alcohol like bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Most states have a dram shop law on the books, though the scope of the law differs from one state to the next.
The term "social host" typically refers to a private individual who hosts a party or get together, usually at a personal residence. Social host liability laws often target those who furnish alcohol to minors, or allow minors to drink at a social gathering. Even in states that haven't passed a social host liability law, hosts who negligently (carelessly) provide alcohol to minors or allow underage drinking at private parties can be held legally responsible for resulting injuries.
The general rule in Tennessee is that drinking alcohol, not furnishing it, is the cause of alcohol-related accidents and injuries. (Tenn. Code § 57-10-101 (2023).) But the state's dram shop law, found at Tenn. Code § 57-10-102 (2023), carves out two exceptions to that general rule.
A person who's injured (or the survivors of someone who's killed) by an intoxicated person can bring a claim against the seller of the alcoholic beverages when:
For the seller to be legally responsible, a 12-person jury must find "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the sale of alcohol caused the injuries or death. This familiar standard of proof, usually reserved for criminal cases, sets an extremely high bar. The normal standard of proof in civil cases like dram shop actions is "a preponderance of the evidence," meaning that a claim is slightly more likely to be true than not true.
The end result? It's very difficult to prove a Tennessee dram shop claim.
Tennessee's dram law doesn't apply to social hosts. But that doesn't mean social hosts are off the legal hook. A social host who furnishes alcohol to minors, or who hosts a party where the host knows that minors are drinking, can be held responsible for injuries that result.
For example, in Biscan v. Brown, 160 S.W.3d 462 (Tenn. 2005), Worley hosted a party for his daughter and several of her underage friends. Though Worley didn't furnish alcohol to the minors, he was aware that they were drinking. Sixteen-year-old Jennifer Biscan left the party in a car driven by another underage intoxicated partygoer, Brown. Brown wrecked the car, causing Biscan to suffer serious injuries.
The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that Worley was negligent. Though he didn't provide the party guests with alcohol, he knew they were drinking. It was foreseeable that they might try to drive while under the influence. Worley was liable for Jennifer Biscan's injuries.
A dram shop or social host liability claim in Tennessee is a civil case, meaning that the alcohol seller's or host's liability is expressed in terms of money damages. Common types of damages in Tennessee liquor liability claims include:
Tennessee dram shop and social host liability claims are personal injury cases. They're subject to a court filing deadline called a "statute of limitations." As a general rule, a Tennessee personal injury lawsuit must be filed in court within one year from the date of injury. (See Tenn. Code § 28-3-104(a)(1)(A) (2023).) In some situations, you might have more time to file. Speak to a Tennessee personal injury lawyer for advice in your case.
Tennessee dram shop and social host liability cases can be technically complicated and difficult to prove. If you have a dram shop claim, you'll need to navigate the rigorous "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof. In addition, you might need to be familiar with how Tennessee courts have interpreted and applied the dram shop statute and social host liability court decisions.
Your best chance of success will come from having experienced legal counsel on your side. If you're ready to move forward with your claim, here's how to find a Tennessee lawyer who's right for you.