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

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

When an intoxicated person causes harm to someone else, Virginia, like every state, allows the injured person to file a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the individual who caused the accident. In many states, under "dram shop" and "social host liability" laws, the injured person can also make a civil claim against a business or social host who may have provided the alcohol. But Virginia is one of a handful of states that has no dram shop law on the books, and while social hosts can be held criminally liable for providing alcohol in some situations, there is no civil liability for social hosts after an alcohol-related accident in Virginia.

No "Dram Shop" Liability in Virginia

The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in two cases that a person injured by an intoxicated individual cannot bring a claim against the vendor who provided the alcohol. In Williamson v. Old Brogue, the court stated that "individuals, drunk or sober, are responsible for their own torts and that...drinking the intoxicant, not furnishing it, is the proximate cause of the injury." In other words, a person who drinks is responsible for the injuries he or she causes, and a business that sells or serves alcohol to that person does not share in that liability. The court reaffirmed in Robinson v. Matt Mary Moran, Inc. that Virginia will not recognize dram shop claims against alcohol vendors.

Here's an example of an injured person's options when it comes to these kinds of situations. Suppose that Diane goes to Bob's Bar for a few drinks. After several rounds, she becomes noticeably intoxicated, but the bartender continues to serve her. Eventually, Diane tries to leave the bar. As she exits onto the bar's front steps, she stumbles and falls down the steps, colliding with Patti. Patti and Diane both fall to the ground, and both are injured.

Patti can seek damages from Diane for causing the accident that injured her, since Patti was almost certainly negligent. However, Patti may not sue Bob's Bar for serving the alcohol that caused Diane's intoxication, since this is the sort of "dram shop" claim that Virginia law does not allow. Of course, if either Patti or Diane were injured because the steps were in an unreasonably dangerous condition -- for instance, Diane tripped on a broken step or there was no railing -- then they might each have a claim against the bar under the state's premises liability laws. This kind of claim would be based on the condition of the steps, not on the sale of alcohol to Diane, and it would have to be shown that Diane's intoxication did not play a significant role in causing the accident.

Limited Social Host Liability in Virginia

Many states that allow dram shop claims also allow an injured person to sue a social host who provided alcohol to a party guest or someone else who went on to caused an alcohol-related accident. Virginia, however, does not allow such social host claims.

Social hosts in Virginia who provide alcohol to a minor under age 21 may face criminal penalties for serving alcohol to a minor. However, anyone who is injured by that minor may not seek damages from a social host. Instead, the injured person may only seek damages from the person who caused the harm, just as in a Virginia dram shop situation.

Here is an illustration. Suppose that Dave goes to a party hosted by Hilary. Although Hilary knows that Dave is only 19, she allows Dave to drink freely at the party. After several drinks, Dave goes to dance on the back deck with his friend Pat. While dancing, Dave stumbles and knocks himself and Pat off the deck. They fall to the ground and are injured.

While Hilary might face criminal penalties for serving alcohol to Dave, a minor, Hilary cannot face civil liability from Pat for serving the alcohol to Dave. But again, it's a different story if Pat and Dave fell because the deck was in an unreasonably dangerous condition, not because Dave was intoxicated.

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