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

When a bar overserves a customer who gets drunk and injures you, can you sue the bar? A look at Washington's dram shop and social host liability laws.

By , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

You're probably here because you were hurt in Washington by someone who was drunk. Maybe you were hit by a drunk driver, or assaulted by a customer in a bar. You're thinking about filing an insurance claim or a personal injury lawsuit, but you have questions about Washington law.

Can I sue the place that sold or served liquor to the person who injured me? If so, how long do I have to file my case? What compensation ("damages," in legalese) am I allowed to collect?

You're in the right place. We'll answer those questions after an overview of liquor liability laws and how they work.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

When you're injured by someone who was drunk at the time, who's responsible for your damages? Here's how the law generally answers that question.

The Common Law

Under the common law—the legal system of mostly judge-made law that American states inherited during the nation's founding era—the rule is simple: Absent an exception, legal responsibility begins and ends with the person who got drunk and hurt you.

Why? Alcohol-related accidents, the thinking goes, are caused by drinking alcohol, not by serving or selling it. Needless to say, those who own bars, liquor stores, and restaurants like this rule. It shields them from legal responsibility when their carelessness contributes to cause harm.

The rule is decidedly less popular among innocent victims of drunk drivers and others who overindulge and misbehave. As between a blameless accident victim and a bar that overserved a drunk patron, who should bear the burden of the patron's misconduct? The common law no-liability rule protects the bar, adding insult to the victim's injuries.

Over time, courts in many states—frustrated by the unfairness of the no-liability rule—carved out some exceptions. For example, alcohol retailers who sell to or serve "obviously" or "clearly" intoxicated customers can be on the hook for damages. So can those who furnish alcohol to minors.

State legislatures got involved, too. Early 20th century lawmakers passed statutes making liquor retailers and others liable for damages when someone they serve gets drunk and causes injuries or death. These laws generally take two forms: Dram shop laws and social host liability laws.

Dram Shop Laws

Long ago, bars and taverns were called "dram shops" because they sold liquor by a measure called a "dram." Today, dram shop laws make retail liquor licensees—people and businesses licensed by the state to sell or serve beer, wine, and liquor directly to the public—responsible for damages when a customer causes injuries or death.

But dram shop laws tend to be limited in reach. The typical law imposes liability only when a retailer serves someone who's clearly intoxicated. In some states, dram shop laws also apply when a retailer sells to or serves an underage customer.

Social Host Liability Laws

A "social host" is simply someone who hosts a party or entertains others at a social function. When a guest overindulges and later causes injury or death, social host liability laws might call on the host to answer with money damages.

While many states have some form of social host liability law, they tend to be narrowly tailored. Few states hold a social host liable for serving an adult of legal drinking age. Instead, most target a host who furnishes alcohol to underage drinkers, or who lets underage drinkers consume alcohol on their property.

Dram Shop Law in Washington

Washington used to have a dram shop statute, but it was repealed in 1955. As a result, Washington reverted to the common law rules discussed above. What does that mean?

Washington Common Law Dram Shop Liability

It means that as a general rule, a liquor retailer isn't liable for dram shop damages when a customer gets drunk and then injures or kills someone. (See Halvorson v. Birchfield Boiler, Inc., 76 Wash. 2d 759, 762-63 (1969).) Barring an exception, legal responsibility extends only to the drunk person.

Washington law recognizes two exceptions to this no-liability rule. A retailer is legally responsible for selling or serving alcohol to:

  • someone who is "obviously intoxicated," (see Burkhart v. Harrod, 110 Wash. 2d 381, 383 (1988)) (but see below), or
  • an underage drinker. (See Purchase v. Meyer, 108 Wash. 2d 220, 228-29 (1987).)

A Different Standard for Drunk Driving Cases

The Washington Supreme Court has decided that a different standard should apply in drunk driving cases. Washington's alcoholic beverage control law—the law the state uses to regulate alcohol retailers—includes Wash. Rev. Code § 66.44.200(1) (2024). The statute prohibits a retailer from selling alcohol to any person who is "apparently under the influence of liquor." This rule doesn't have anything to do with Washington's common law dram shop liability—except in drunk driving cases.

A retailer can face dram shop liability for selling or serving alcohol to a person who's "apparently under the influence of liquor" when that person later gets into a drunk driving accident and causes injuries or death. (Barrett v. Lucky Seven Saloon, Inc., 152 Wash. 2d 259, 273-74 (2004).) Stated differently, in drunk driving cases, the "apparently under the influence" standard replaces the "obviously intoxicated" standard.

A Quick Review

So, in drunk driving dram shop cases, the question is whether the retailer sold to or served a customer who was "apparently under the influence of liquor." But in all other Washington dram shop cases, the question is whether alcohol was sold or served to a customer who was "obviously intoxicated." These are different standards. In some cases, it might be more difficult to prove "apparent" intoxication. In others, proving "obvious" intoxication will be a heavier burden.

Examples: Washington Dram Shop Liability

Dale spent the afternoon at the Serious Drinkers Tavern. After 5 double scotches, Dale was slurring his speech, speaking in a loud, boisterous, and sometimes argumentative tone, and on one occasion dropped his scotch glass. Dale stood up to go to the restroom, lost his balance and stumbled into Susan, who was sitting on the next stool. Susan fell to the ground and broke her wrist.

Susan can bring a claim against Dale for causing her injuries. She also might have a dram shop claim against Serious Drinkers Tavern. To succeed with this claim, Susan must show that the Tavern continued to serve alcohol to Dale when he was "obviously intoxicated."

Suppose that instead of the incident with Susan, Dale got in his car and tried to drive home. On the way, he passed out, crossed the center line and hit another car head on, killing the driver. The other driver's surviving relatives can sue Dale for wrongful death. They might also bring a dram shop claim against Serious Drinkers Tavern. To win, they must show that the Tavern continued to serve Dale when he was "apparently under the influence of liquor."

Washington Social Host Liability

Washington social host liability is also controlled by the common law, but with an assist from a Washington statute making it unlawful to furnish alcohol to minors.

No Liability for Providing Alcohol to Adults

A Washington social host isn't liable for furnishing alcohol to an adult of legal drinking age, even if the adult is obviously intoxicated. Why? Because social hosts give alcohol away, they don't sell it. Thus, the common law rule applicable to dram shops doesn't apply to social hosts.

Liability for Providing Alcohol to Minors

But the same isn't true for social hosts who furnish alcohol to minors. Wash. Rev. Code § 66.44.270(1) (2024) makes it unlawful for "any person" to "sell, give, or otherwise supply liquor" to a minor. This law means that social hosts have a legal duty not to provide alcohol to minors.

Stated more directly, when a social host furnishes alcohol to a minor who then suffers injuries or death, the social host can be liable for damages. (See Hansen v. Friend, 118 Wash. 2d 476, 482-83 (1992).) Note, importantly, that Washington only lets the injured minor (or in the case of death, the minor's surviving relatives) recover for their injuries. Social host liability doesn't cover injuries caused to others by the minor. (Reynolds v. Hicks, 134 Wash. 2d 491, 503 (1998).)

Damages in Washington Alcohol-Related Accident Claims

If you succeed with a Washington dram shop or social host liability case, you'll recover what the law calls "compensatory damages." As the name suggests, these damages are meant to compensate you for your injury-related losses. Compensatory damages fall into two categories: Special damages and general damages. Washington doesn't allow punitive damages.

Special Damages

Also known as "economic" damages, special damages reimburse you for amounts you (or sometimes, your insurance company) pay out of pocket. Medical bills, lost wages, costs for equipment like crutches or a wheelchair, and pharmacy charges are common examples.

General Damages

General damages are also known as "noneconomic" damages. They compensate you for injuries that don't cost you directly out of pocket. These injuries often include emotional distress, disability and disfigurement, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life.

How Long Do I Have to File a Dram Shop or Social Host Liability Lawsuit?

A "statute of limitations" is a law that limits your time to file a lawsuit in court. In Washington, dram shop and social host liability claims are subject to the state's general personal injury statute of limitations. You have three years, usually from the date you're injured, to file a dram shop or social host liability lawsuit in court. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2) (2024).)

Miss the filing deadline and, absent an exception that gives you more time, your claim is legally dead. Nothing you do will bring it back to life. File a lawsuit and the court will dismiss it as untimely. The other side won't negotiate a settlement with you because you no longer have a claim to settle. You've lost the right to collect damages for your injuries, no matter how serious, permanent, or disabling they might be.

Get Help With Your Washington Dram Shop or Social Host Liability Case

At first glance, it might seem that a dram shop or social host liability case should be simple. A bar overserves a drunk customer who then drives off and injures or kills someone. How could a case be easier? Think again.

In Washington, liability is likely to involve both common law and statutory rules. Thorny factual and legal issues that can derail your case might be lurking in the shadows. You can bet that your opponent will be represented by legal counsel who knows Washington law and the applicable court rules. To make it a fair fight, you need expert legal help on your side, too.

When you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how you can find an attorney who's right for you.

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