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

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

In Wisconsin, as in any state, if you are injured by an intoxicated person's negligence, you can bring a personal injury claim against that individual. But in some situations, your options for a legal remedy may not stop there. An injured person may also be able to bring a claim against the business (such as a bar or restaurant) or other third party that provided the alcohol to the intoxicated person. (Claims against alcohol vendors are known as "dram shop" claims, based on the fact that alcohol was historically sold by a unit of measure called a "dram.")

Some states limit dram shop liability. Wisconsin is one such state. Generally, a vendor or social host cannot be held liable in Wisconsin if they serve alcohol to an adult who then causes harm to another person. However, a vendor or social host may face civil liability or criminal penalties if they serve alcohol to a minor who then causes harm.

In this article, we'll look at the legal rules that govern third party liability for an alcohol-related accident in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's Dram Shop Law

Wisconsin Statutes section 125.035 states that "a person is immune from civil liability arising out of the act of procuring alcohol beverages for or selling, dispensing or giving away alcohol beverages to another person." This statute covers both "dram shop" situations -- in which alcohol is sold by a licensed vendor -- and social host situations in which alcohol is served to guests.

However, Wisconsin does recognize some exceptions to this law. Situations in which a vendor or host may be held liable for providing alcohol to someone who, by reason of their intoxication, ends up harming a third party, include:

  • when alcohol is served by force or by deception (such as by claiming the beverage is alcohol-free), and
  • when alcohol is provided to a minor and is a "substantial factor" in the resulting injury.

Here is an example of Wisconsin's dram shop rules at work. Suppose that Don stops at Bill's Bar on his way home from work one evening. After several drinks, Don decides to go downstairs to the bar's basement to play pool. As he tries to walk down the staircase, however, he stumbles and collides with Pete. Both Don and Pete fall down the staircase and are injured.

As long as Don is 21 years of age or older, Pete cannot seek damages from Bill's Bar for serving the alcohol that caused Don to stumble and knock Pete down the stairs. Pete may, however, seek damages directly from Don for causing his injuries due to negligence. And if the staircase was unreasonably dangerous -- for instance, if it had no railing or a step was broken -- both Pete and Don may be able to bring a premises liability claim against Bill's Bar.

Social Host Liability in Wisconsin

Like alcohol vendors, social hosts cannot generally be held liable if they provide alcohol to a guest who then injures someone else. However, social hosts may face criminal penalties if they provide alcohol to a minor under age 21 who injures someone else in an alcohol-related accident. Social hosts who allow minors to drink on their property may also be ticketed and fined in many Wisconsin cities and towns that have social host ordinances.

Here is a situation in which social host liability might apply. Suppose that Howard hosts a party at his house. His neighbor Max, a 17-year-old minor, comes to the party and has several drinks. Howard notices Max drinking alcohol, but he doesn't take any steps to stop the behavior. Later that evening, Max gets into his car and tries to drive across town. On the way, he runs a stop sign and hits Paul, a pedestrian, causing serious injuries.

Paul may seek damages from Max for causing the injury. He can also bring a civil claim for damages again Howard if he can demonstrate that Max's intoxication was a "substantial factor" in the accident that injured him. In addition, Howard may also face criminal penalties for providing the alcohol to Max, who was underage.

Damages in Wisconsin Alcohol-Related Injury Cases

A person who is injured by an intoxicated individual can typically file a personal injury claim against the intoxicated person who caused the injuries. In alcohol-related injury cases, common categories of damages include compensation for:

  • medical bills related to the injury
  • lost wages and benefits as a result of missing work due to injury
  • property damage that occurred in the accident, and
  • pain and suffering.

Get the details on Damages in Personal Injury Cases.

Like other injury claims, an alcohol-related injury claim in Wisconsin must be filed within three years of the date of injury in order to be permitted under the state's statute of limitations. If the claim is not filed within the time limit, it cannot be heard in court.

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