In Wisconsin, as in all states, alcohol is a significant contributing factor to many accidents. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, alcohol is the biggest "driver contributing cause" of fatal motor vehicle accidents. So it comes as no surprise that Wisconsin has joined the overwhelming majority of states in enacting liquor liability laws, also sometimes called "dram shop" or "social host liability" laws.
We begin with a quick overview of liquor liability laws generally. Then we'll take a closer look at Wisconsin dram shop and social host liability.
For much of our country's history, states refused to impose legal responsibility on sellers and servers of alcohol. The general rule—still recognized in many states—was that alcohol-related accidents are caused not by people who sell alcohol, but by those who drink it.
As the number and severity of alcohol-related accidents began to increase, states realized that this rule often produced unfair results. In response, they began enacting dram shop and social host liability statutes that impose liability for money damages on sellers and party hosts who provide intoxicants to clearly drunk or underage people.
Long ago, taverns sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram," which led to the slang term "dram shops." Today dram shop laws regulate retailers like bars, restaurants, grocery and liquor stores, and others. A typical dram shop law holds a seller who provides alcohol to a clearly intoxicated or underage customer liable for damages in a personal injury lawsuit.
Social host liability laws target private individuals who furnish alcohol at parties or social gatherings. While they vary from state to state, social host liability laws often hold hosts who furnish alcohol to minors, or who allow minors to drink on their property, liable for damages if the minor injures others.
Wisconsin has a one-size-fits-all statute that covers both dram shop and social host liability. You'll find it at Wis. Stat. § 125.035 (2023). The law begins by stating Wisconsin's general rule: There's no liability—for liquor retailers or social hosts—for "selling, dispensing, or giving away" alcoholic beverages to another person. (Wis. Stat. § 125.035(2) (2023).)
But this general rule doesn't apply when the person who's providing the alcohol:
A person who furnishes alcohol to an underage drinker can be on the hook for money damages when:
The statute says there can be no liability if all four of these factors are true:
If you succeed with a Wisconsin dram shop or social host liability claim, you can collect damages to compensate you for your injuries. Here are some of the damages you'll want to recover:
Wisconsin has a deadline, called a "statute of limitations," for filing dram shop and social host liability lawsuits in court. There's not a separate statute of limitations under the dram shop statute. Instead, Wisconsin applies the general personal injury statutes of limitations to dram shop and social host liability claims.
The statute of limitations on personal injury and wrongful death cases is three years, usually from the date of injury or death. (Wis. Stat. § 893.54(1m) (2023).) But if a wrongful death claim arises from a motor vehicle accident, the limitation period is two years from the date of death. (Wis. Stat. § 893.54(2m) (2023).)
In some circumstances, you might have more time to file your lawsuit. Be sure to check with a Wisconsin attorney for advice in your case.
Liquor liability claims like these can be legally and factually complex. Among other things, you'll need to know the intricacies of Wisconsin's dram shop and social host liability statute, and how courts have interpreted the statute in cases like yours in the past. You can bet that the other side will be represented by experienced legal counsel. To make it a fair fight, you should be, too.
If you're ready to move forward with your claim, here's how to find a Wisconsin lawyer who's right for you.