Responsibility for Injuries Caused by Bar Patrons

By Prev Info - October 19, 2022

Studies have shown that at least 40% of all traffic fatalities are alcohol related. In addition, each year billions of dollars in damages are precipitated by drunk driving. In many states, liability for these damages may be shared by the driver and the seller or provider of the alcohol.

Common Law Liability

In addition to statutes enacted by legislatures, laws are also developed through court decisions in actual cases. Legal principles developed through case law "precedent," along with accepted custom and usage, form "common law." In general, at common law, liability for damages resulting from drunken acts rested solely on the drunken person and did not extend to those who provided the alcohol.

Dram Shop Laws

In response to the common law rule, states began to enact "dram shop" laws in the 19th century. Whereas a "dram" is a liquid measure equal to one-eighth ounce, a "dram shop" refers to a commercial establishment with a liquor license that sells alcoholic beverages (e.g., bar, restaurant, liquor store). Most states have enacted dram shop laws; yet the laws vary widely in their requirements and effects.

Responsibility for Injuries Caused by Bar Patrons

Some state dram shop laws are drafted broadly to include any person or entity that "provides" alcohol. In laws like these, where a "sale" is not required, hosts who serve liquor at a party may also be included.

In general, however, most state laws impose liability on establishments for damages resulting from the "sale" of liquor to anyone who is "visibly intoxicated," or to a minor. A third party injured as a result of the intoxicated person's actions may typically bring a court action for damages directly against the "dram shop" establishment, if she can prove that:

-The establishment actually sold alcohol to the person who caused the damages

-The sale took place at a time when the person was "visibly intoxicated"

-The damages suffered were the direct result of the intoxication

Issues of Proof

In practice, the second requirement enumerated above is generally the hardest to demonstrate. This is because proof of drunkenness at the time of the incident (usually a car accident), does not establish drunkenness when the sale was made. Rather, proof of drunkenness at the time of sale must generally be made by separate, "circumstantial" evidence; i.e., evidence that indicates drunkenness at the time of sale, but does not absolutely prove it. Some plaintiffs offer expert testimony; e.g., based on blood alcohol levels at the time of the incident, the person must have been drunk at the time alcohol was purchased. In many states, however, expert testimony is not admissible.

In some states, civil liability is based on a showing that the seller's actions were negligent, i.e., they fell below the standard of care a reasonable person would have used in deciding whether to sell to the customer. In other states, however, the law requires a showing that the seller acted "willfully and knowingly" in selling the liquor, which is more difficult to prove.

When the drunken person is a minor, a showing that the minor was drunk at the time the alcohol was purchased is usually not required. The law assumes that the minor's abilities are impaired by any alcoholic consumption. Thus, only the sale and the resulting damages need be shown to establish the seller's liability.

Damages and Insurance

In most states, the seller may be liable for all resulting damages, including property and medical damages and lost wages. Some state dram shop laws, however, limit the dollar amount of damages that may be recovered.

In some jurisdictions, sellers may also be liable for "punitive" damages – damages awarded by the court to punish actions deemed willful, reckless and in disregard of the safety of others. To determine potential exposure, local state laws must be considered. Business liability insurance may, however, cover such liability, up to stated policy limitations.





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