In West Virginia, as in every state, if you are injured by an intoxicated person's negligence, you can bring a personal injury claim against that person. But your options for a legal remedy may not stop there. An injured person may also be able to bring a "dram shop" claim against the vendor (such as a bar or restaurant) that provided the alcohol to the intoxicated person, if the vendor violated West Virginia law in doing so.
In this article, we'll look at third party liability for an alcohol-related accident in West Virginia.
West Virginia is one of a minority of states that have no specific dram shop statute. Instead, dram shop claims have been established by the state's supreme court. In Bailey v. Black (1990), the court held that "there exists a civil cause of action against a licensee for personal injuries caused by the licensee's selling alcohol to anyone who is 'physically incapacitated' by drinking."
Here is an example of the state's dram shop rule in action. Suppose that Dirk goes to Telly's Tavern for a few drinks. Although Dirk drinks several rounds and starts slurring his speech and becoming unable to walk, the bartender continues to serve him alcohol. Eventually Dirk tries to stand up from his bar stool, but he is so intoxicated that he loses his balance, and falls over. As he falls, he collides with Padma, who is sitting on the stool beside his. Padma and Dirk fall to the floor and are injured.
Under West Virginia's dram shop law, Padma can seek damages from Dirk for her injuries. She can also seek damages from Telly's Tavern for unlawfully serving alcohol to Dirk when Dirk was "physically incapacitated" by drinking.
Although West Virginia's courts have recognized civil dram shop claims, they do not recognize claims for liability when a social host provides alcohol to an adult at a private event. In Overbaugh v. McCutcheon (1990), McCutcheon had several drinks at a private party. While driving home, McCutcheon crossed the center line and struck a vehicle containing the Overbaugh family. The court held that, unlike dram shop claims, social host liability claims could not be recognized in West Virginia because they could not be based on a statute prohibiting the service of alcohol to adult social guests. The court did not say whether the case might have ended differently if the hosts had served alcohol to a minor, however.
Here is another example of a social host liability situation in West Virginia. Suppose that Diane goes to a party hosted by her neighbor, Howard. Diane has several drinks at the party and is dancing on the back deck when she trips and collides with Paula. Diane and Paula both topple off the edge of the deck, which has no railing, and are injured.
Here, West Virginia law does not allow either Paula or Diane to seek damages from Howard on the grounds that Howard provided the alcohol that intoxicated Diane. However, both Paula and Diane might be able to bring a premises liability claim against Howard, if the lack of a railing meant the deck was in an "unreasonably dangerous" condition and Howard had failed to warn them about the risk. The premises liability claim is not based on the provision of alcohol, however, but on Howard's responsibility to keep his property in a reasonably safe condition for guests.
Civil damages are typically awarded to compensate an injured person for losses suffered in an accident where someone else (the defendant) was legally responsible. As with other personal injury cases, a successful dram shop claim might result in an award of damages that are meant to cover the injured person's medical bills, lost wages, the value of household services or childcare the injured person would have otherwise performed, property damage, and pain and suffering.
Like other civil injury claims, a dram shop claim must be filed in a West Virginia state court before the expiration of the statutory time limit. This West Virginia law (called a "statute of limitations") requires that all injury lawsuits be filed within two years of the date of injury, in most situations.