For many years, Washington State has recognized that a person injured by an intoxicated minor can bring a civil lawsuit against either the alcohol vendor or the private social host who sold or served alcohol to the minor. Washington law also allows an injured party to sue an alcohol vendor in cases where a vendor served an adult patron who was obviously intoxicated and later caused an accident.
Let's take a closer look at this kind of third-party liability for an alcohol-related accident in the State of Washington.
"Dram shop claims" (third-party liability claims against alcohol vendors) involving intoxicated minors are based on Revised Code of Washington section 66.44.270, which prohibits licensed alcohol vendors from selling alcohol to minors under age 21. The state's courts have held that this prohibition opens up an opportunity for a person injured by an intoxicated minor to seek damages in a civil claim against the vendor who sold the alcohol.
The Washington Supreme Court has also held that a dram shop claim could be brought against an alcohol vendor that sold alcohol to an adult patron who was "apparently under the influence" or "obviously intoxicated" at the time.
Here is an example of Washington's dram shop law at work. Suppose that Drina goes to Sal's Saloon for a few drinks. Although Drina begins to slur her speech and have trouble walking, the bartender continues to serve alcohol to her. Eventually, Drina leaves the saloon and gets into her car. As she tries to drive away from the bar, she collides with Penny, a pedestrian. Penny is injured in the accident.
Penny can file a claim against Drina for causing the accident. She can also file a dram shop claim against Sal's Saloon for continuing to serve Penny alcohol even though Penny's behavior clearly showed that she was intoxicated. Penny can file her claim whether Drina is an adult or a minor.
Social host liability claims in Washington differ from dram shop claims in two main ways. First, a social host liability claim always involves a private social host, not a licensed alcohol vendor. Second, in Washington, a social host liability applies only in situations where the social host serves alcohol to a minor guest who later causes an injury. Social hosts typically can't be held responsible for serving an intoxicated adult guest who subsequently causes an accident.
For example, suppose that Daniel, a 19-year-old, goes to a party hosted by Harriet, a family friend. Harriet is aware that Daniel hasn't turned 21 yet but allows him free access to the party's beer keg anyway. After several drinks, Daniel tries to descend the steps into Harriet's basement when he trips and falls, colliding with Polly on the stairs. Daniel and Polly both fall to the bottom of the staircase and are injured.
Here, Polly can seek damages from Daniel for causing the accident. She can also seek damages from Harriet, who allowed Daniel to drink despite knowing that Daniel was a minor.
Damages in an alcohol-related accident claim are intended to compensate the injured person for losses caused by the accident, which might include compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, medical treatment, and property damage.
Like other civil claims, a dram shop or social host liability claim must be filed before the deadline set by the state's statute of limitations passes. In most situations, this means the claim must be filed in court within three years of the date of injury. However, the facts of each case are different. So, to be certain your rights are protected, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible after suffering an injury.