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

When a drunk person causes injuries in Virginia, can whoever provided them with alcohol be held liable?

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

You're on your way home from work one afternoon, when a car barrels through a stop light, hits you broadside, and seriously injures you. Turns out the driver of the other car had been drinking at a bar all afternoon and was well over the legal limit. Worse yet, that driver was also uninsured and, unfortunately, you didn't have uninsured motorist coverage.

Do you have any other options to get compensation for your injuries? Does Virginia law let you sue the bar that served the other driver alcohol? Unfortunately, the answer is no. If you can't recover all your losses from the drunk person who hurt you, and if you don't have other insurance to cover you, chances are you're out of luck.

We begin with a quick overview of state liquor liability laws, often referred to as "dram shop" or "social host liability" laws. From there, we'll see what Virginia law has to say about going after a seller or server who carelessly serves a drunk or underage customer.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

Under early American common law, the rule was simple: A person who sold or served alcohol wasn't legally responsible for injuries caused by a drunk customer. Drinking alcohol, not selling it, was the legal cause of any resulting harms. This is still the rule in a few states.

Most states eventually came to see the hardships this rule often caused. Beginning in the mid-20th century, state lawmakers started enacting statutes making liquor sellers liable, at least in some cases. In other states, the courts allowed injured people to sue bars, restaurants, and others for negligently serving alcohol to drunk or underage patrons.

Dram Shop Laws

Long ago, taverns sold alcohol by a measurement called a "dram," which led to them sometimes being called "dram shops." Today, a typical state dram shop law makes alcohol retailers—bars, restaurants, grocery and liquor stores, and others—legally liable for money damages when they sell or serve alcohol to clearly drunk or underage customers, who then cause injury to others.

Social Host Liability Laws

Social host liability laws target private individuals who supply liquor or allow drinking at private parties or other gatherings. The scope of social host liability laws tends to be narrower than dram shop laws.

For example, in a number of states, the law holds private party hosts legally responsible for money damages when they provide alcohol to minors or allow minors to drink on their property. But they don't hold social hosts liable for injuries caused by drunk adult guests.

No Dram Shop Liability in Virginia

Virginia is one of a handful of states that continues to follow the common law rule described above. Under Virginia law, the drinking of alcohol, not furnishing it, is the legal cause of alcohol-related accidents and injuries. Virginia has no dram shop statute on the books.

The Virginia Supreme Court won't allow liquor liability lawsuits against bars, restaurants, and other alcohol sellers for negligently furnishing alcohol to customers. For example, in Williamson v. The Old Brogue, Inc., 350 S.E.2d 651 (Va. 1986), the Virginia Supreme Court refused to allow a lawsuit for personal injuries against a bar that allegedly sold alcohol to a visibly-intoxicated customer, who then caused an accident. Robinson v. Matt Mary Moran, Inc., 525 S.E.2d 559 (Va. 2000), refused to allow a wrongful death lawsuit claiming that a bar negligently served alcohol to underage customers.

No Social Host Liability in Virginia

Virginia however doesn't allow social host liability claims, either. The reason? The law puts the blame for an accident on the party guest who drinks, not on the host who serves the drinks or allows the drinking. This rule applies both to clearly intoxicated and underage drinkers.

Get Help With Your Accident Claim

Virginia is one of a handful of states that recognizes neither dram shop nor social host liability for alcohol-related injuries. That said, it's always possible that at some point, Virginia lawmakers or the Virginia Supreme Court will change course and modify the state's law.

In the meantime, if you've been injured by a drunk person in Virginia, your best chance to get fair compensation from that person for your injuries will come from hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. When you're ready to move forward with your claim, here's how to find the attorney who's right for you.

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