Dram shop laws apply to any commercial establishment where alcohol is sold, including restaurants, bars, taverns, and stadium vendors. Dram shop laws get their name from 18th-century English establishments that sold gin by the spoonful, called a ‘dram.’ Today, dram shop laws are used to hold vendors liable for injuries intoxicated patrons cause to themselves or others.
Dram shop laws make vendors strictly liable to a plaintiff if the vendor sold alcohol to a patron who was visibly intoxicated, and that patron injured themselves or another person. This means that victims of DUI accidents can pursue a claim for death, injury, or other damages against the establishment that served the intoxicated driver.
Currently, 43 states plus the District of Columbia have dram shop laws of some kind. The scope of dram shop laws varies from state to state. Some states only impose liability on establishments that serve alcohol to minors, while others’ laws apply both to visibly intoxicated adults and to minors. Before pursuing a claim for dram shop liability, you should consult with a DUI lawyer to determine the extent of dram shop liability in your state.
First-Party Dram Shop Cases
A first-party dram shop case exists when an intoxicated patron injures themselves. Some states with dram shop laws explicitly prohibit first-party dram shop cases, and even when a state does permit first-party claims, they are difficult to win. Juries typically find that intoxicated persons assume the risk of their own actions. However, if the intoxicated patron is a minor, the vendor is much more likely to face liability.
Third-Party Dram Shop Cases
A third-party dram shop case exists when an intoxicated patron injures another person. If you are hit by a drunk driver, you may have a third-party dram shop claim against the establishment that served the patron alcohol.
Proving Fault in Dram Shop Cases
The elements that must be proven in a dram shop case vary by state. In most states, a plaintiff must prove that the vendor knew or should have known that the patron was so intoxicated that additional alcohol would increase the risk of harm to the patron or others with whom the patron interacted. This is referred to as the “obvious intoxication test”.
Proving the fault of the vendor is a challenge because it is often difficult for vendors to accurately judge a patron’s level of intoxication. For instance, they are unlikely to know whether a patron has a low alcohol tolerance, is drinking on an empty stomach, or began drinking before visiting the establishment. Further, they may not be aware that the patron will drive after leaving.
Damages in Dram Shop Cases
In some states, plaintiffs may be awarded enhanced damages if they prove that the defendant acted recklessly. Additionally, some states impose monetary caps on compensatory damages. If a third-party plaintiff is successful in their lawsuit against both the patron and the vendor, compensatory damages are usually divided between the two defendants.
Social Host Liability
Some states’ dram shop laws also apply to social hosts that provide alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons who subsequently injure themselves or others. Many states whose dram shop laws do not cover social hosts have separate laws that impose liability on social hosts that provide alcohol to minors. A smaller number of states have separate social host laws that apply not only to minors but to any person who is over-served alcohol.
Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on dram shop and social host liability.