What Is Dram Shop Liability?

Dram Shop Liability
Posted: June 11, 2024

Imagine this scenario: You’re out with friends at a local bar, enjoying a few drinks and some lively conversation. As the night goes on, you notice a fellow patron at the bar becoming increasingly intoxicated. Despite his slurred speech, unsteady gait, and aggressive behavior, the bartender continues to serve him drink after drink.

Later that evening, you see the same individual stumble out of the bar, fumble with his car keys, and drive off into the night. A short time later, you hear sirens in the distance and learn a drunk driver has caused a terrible crash. Tragically, innocent victims have been seriously injured or killed.

In situations like this, you may want to focus on the intoxicated individual’s poor choices and dangerous actions. However, the bar or establishment that overserved a clearly intoxicated patron may also bear significant responsibility under the law. This is where the concept of dram shop liability comes into play.

Dram shop liability refers to the legal principle that you can hold bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and other alcohol vendors liable for the actions of intoxicated patrons or customers under certain conditions.

In essence, allows you to hold these establishments accountable for the irresponsible service of alcohol and the foreseeable harm that can result.

The specific circumstances and requirements for dram shop liability vary by state, but generally speaking, if a business serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated individual or a minor who goes on to cause injury, death, or property damage, the establishment may face civil liability for the resulting losses and damages.

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The Importance of Dram Shop Laws

By imposing liability, these laws encourage bars and other establishments to train their staff, follow responsible serving practices, and cut off service to patrons who pose a clear risk to themselves and others.

For individuals injured by a drunk driver or an intoxicated person, dram shop laws provide an important avenue for seeking justice and compensation. However, building a successful dram shop liability case hinges on proving key elements like visible intoxication, proximate cause, and the establishment’s negligence in overserving. This requires a lawyer’s thorough investigation.

History of Dram Shop Laws

Dram shop laws have their roots in 19th century England, where businesses that sold gin by the spoonful or dram were sometimes held liable for their patrons’ drunken behavior and resulting damages.

The first dram shop law in the United States was enacted in Wisconsin in 1849. Over the years, various states adopted dram shop acts, but many were repealed during Prohibition. After the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, states began re-enacting dram shop legislation. Today, 43 states have some form of dram shop liability on the books.

When Dram Shop Liability Applies

The specific circumstances under which dram shop liability comes into play vary by state. In general, the following elements must be proven:

  1. The alcohol was sold or given to the patron by the establishment
  2. The patron was obviously intoxicated or underage at the time they were served
  3. Providing the alcohol caused or contributed to the patron’s intoxication
  4. The patron’s intoxication was the proximate cause of the resulting injury or damages

Obvious intoxication is usually defined as visible signs of impairment such as slurred speech, unsteady gait, erratic behavior, etc. that would lead a reasonable person to conclude the individual was drunk.

With regard to minors, some states impose liability if the vendor knew or should have known the person was underage, while others apply a strict liability standard.

Common situations that may give rise to a dram shop claim include:

  • A visibly drunk bar patron causes a car crash that injures others
  • An intoxicated nightclub guest assaults another patron
  • A liquor store sells alcohol to minors who then cause property damage
  • A restaurant overserves a patron who then falls and injures themselves

Damages in Dram Shop Cases

If the injured plaintiff prevails in a dram shop lawsuit, they may recover various compensatory damages from the alcohol vendor, including:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Property damage
  • Loss of consortium
  • Funeral and burial expenses (in a wrongful death case)

Some states also allow punitive damages to punish egregious or reckless conduct by the alcohol vendor and deter similar behavior. However, some states cap or prohibit punitive damages in dram shop cases.

Dram Shop Liability in New York

New York’s Dram Shop Act (General Obligations Law §11-101) states that any person who is injured by reason of the intoxication of another person under 21 years old shall have a cause of action against any vendor that unlawfully sold or assisted in procuring alcohol for the intoxicated minor.

For liability to apply, the plaintiff must establish:

  1. The vendor unlawfully served the minor alcohol
  2. The unlawful provision of alcohol caused or contributed to the minor’s intoxication
  3. The minor’s intoxication was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury

Unlike many other states, New York does not have a statutory cause of action against establishments that serve visibly intoxicated adult patrons. However, under New York common law, vendors may still be liable for damages if they serve a visibly intoxicated person who then causes foreseeable harm.

Key factors include whether the individual was visibly and significantly intoxicated, how much alcohol was served to them by the establishment, and the connection between the unlawful service of alcohol and the resulting injury.

Statute of Limitations

Dram shop lawsuits must be filed within the applicable statute of limitations, which varies by state. In New York, the statute of limitations for dram shop cases is three years from the injury. However, plaintiffs should consult an attorney as soon as possible, as crucial evidence and witness testimony can quickly disappear.

How Dram Shop Liability Works

Here’s an example of a situation that could give rise to a dram shop liability claim:

John, a 35-year-old man, goes to a local bar after work. Despite John appearing visibly intoxicated and slurring his words, the bartender continues to serve him several more drinks over the course of two hours. John leaves the bar, gets into his car, and driving home.

On the way, John swerves into oncoming traffic and collides head-on with a vehicle driven by Sarah.

Sarah suffers severe injuries, including multiple bone fractures, a concussion, and internal bleeding. She requires emergency surgery and an extended hospital stay, resulting in substantial medical bills. Sarah is unable to work for several months during her recovery, leading to significant lost wages.

In this scenario, Sarah may have a dram shop liability claim against the bar that overserved John.

She would need to show:

  1. The bar sold and served alcohol to John
  2. John was visibly intoxicated at the time he was served
  3. The alcohol provided by the bar caused or contributed to John’s intoxication
  4. John’s intoxication proximately caused the crash and Sarah’s injuries

If successful in a dram shop lawsuit, Sarah may be able to recover damages from the bar for her medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering, and other losses stemming from the crash. The bar may argue that John did not appear visibly intoxicated, Sarah was comparatively negligent, or other defenses.

Dram shop cases like this typically hinge on evidence such as bar receipts showing how much alcohol was served, witness testimony about the patron’s visible intoxication, police reports, and expert analysis. Plaintiffs need to build a strong case demonstrating the bar’s negligence in overserving a clearly intoxicated individual and the foreseeability of the resulting harm.

Social Host Liability

Alcohol served by Social HostRelated to dram shop liability, some states impose potential liability on social hosts who provide alcohol to clearly intoxicated guests or minors who then cause injury or damage. New York does not have a statutory cause of action for social host liability related to serving adult guests. However, under New York common law, party hosts may be liable for damages resulting from providing alcohol to a visibly intoxicated adult if the resulting harm was foreseeable.

Regarding serving minors, New York’s General Obligations Law §11-100 states that any person who is injured by reason of the intoxication of a person under 21 years old shall have a cause of action against any person who knowingly caused the intoxication by unlawfully furnishing or assisting in procuring alcohol for the minor.

How Social Host Liability Works

Here’s an example of how social host liability could work:

Mike, a 19-year-old college student, attends a house party hosted by his friend Dan. Dan provides beer and liquor to his guests, including Mike, even though he knows Mike is underage. Mike becomes heavily intoxicated at the party, stumbling and slurring his words.

Despite Mike’s obvious intoxication, Dan allows Mike to leave the party on foot. While walking home, Mike trips on a curb, falls into the street, and is struck by an oncoming vehicle.

Mike suffers a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord damage, and multiple fractures. He requires extensive medical treatment, rehabilitative care, and is left with permanent disabilities that impact his ability to work and care for himself.

In this situation, Mike and his family may have a social host liability claim against Dan. Under New York’s General Obligations Law §11-100, an injured party has a cause of action against any person who knowingly caused the intoxication of a person under 21 by unlawfully furnishing or assisting in procuring alcohol for them.

To succeed in a social host liability claim, Mike would need to prove:

  1. Dan knowingly provided or assisted in providing alcohol to Mike
  2. Mike was under 21 years old at the time
  3. The alcohol supplied by Dan caused or contributed to Mike’s intoxication
  4. Mike’s intoxication proximately caused his injuries

If liable, Dan may need to pay for Mike’s economic and non-economic damages, such as his medical bills, lost future earnings, pain and suffering, and reduced quality of life.

Social host cases can present many challenges, as hosts may not carry insurance covering such claims. Hosts could face personal liability that puts their assets at risk. Homeowner’s insurance policies may exclude coverage for incidents involving the illegal provision of alcohol to minors.

The law may limit social host liability for serving adult guests. New York does not have a statutory cause of action related to social hosts providing alcohol to visibly intoxicated adults. However, under common law, party hosts could potentially face liability if an intoxicated adult guest causes foreseeable injuries, depending on the specific circumstances.

Contact the Dram Shop Liability Lawyers at William Matter Law Offices Today

If an intoxicated individual injured you or a loved one, consult an experienced personal injury attorney to evaluate your potential dram shop claim. These complex cases hinge on highly fact-specific determinations about obvious intoxication, causation, foreseeable harm, and other factors.

A personal injury attorney can investigate the alcohol service and injury, gather essential evidence, interview witnesses, and build the strongest case for holding the vendor accountable.

At William Mattar Law Offices, our knowledgeable New York dram shop liability attorneys are committed to helping injured victims and their families seek the compensation they deserve. We offer free consultations and work on a contingency fee basis, so there are no upfront costs to retain our services.

Contact us today at (716) 444-4444 or through our online form for your free and confidential consultation.

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