Dram shop laws hold owners of businesses that sell alcoholic beverages legally responsible for damages caused by an intoxicated person served there. Dram shop laws in most states allow victims of drunk driving accidents (or their families) to hold bars and alcohol retailers accountable for deaths, injuries, or any other damages caused by an intoxicated customer. Aside from the often devastating impacts of drunk driving, DUI collisions can expose drunk drivers to lawsuits for a victim's injuries or death.
Similar to dram shop laws are social host liability laws. These laws hold the hosts of private functions liable for injuries or wrongful deaths caused by their negligence in serving alcohol or failing to prevent an impaired guest from driving.
This article discusses dram shop laws generally. It also addresses how to prove fault in a dram shop case.
What Is a Dram Shop Law?
Dram shop laws are named after establishments in 18th century Britain that sold gin by the spoonful (a "dram"). These civil liability laws are enforced through civil lawsuits. Dram shop laws allow DUI victims and their families to sue alcohol vendors or retailers for monetary damages. Typically, when a plaintiff wins a lawsuit against both an alcohol vendor and an intoxicated driver, the compensatory damages are divided between the two defendants.
For example, a New Jersey jury awarded $135 million to the family of a girl paralyzed in 1999 after a drunk driver collided with the motor vehicle in which she was riding. The drunk driver had left a New York Giants football game and reportedly had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that was double the legal limit at the time of the wreck. The jury determined that the concessionaire at Giants Stadium shared dram shop liability for the victim's serious injury.
In addition to imposing liability on establishments for serving alcohol to intoxicated customers, dram shop laws also impose liability for serving anyone under the legal drinking age.
Proving Fault in a Dram Shop Case
Proving the fault of an alcohol vendor is a relatively difficult task in a dram shop case. Dram shop claims raise complex questions. For instance, how should bartenders know whether a patron is drinking on an empty stomach or has a low tolerance for alcohol? And was a patron intoxicated before entering the establishment? How does a bartender know whether a patron plans to drive a car?
A person seeking to impose liability under the Illinois Dram Shop Act, for example, must be able to prove the following at trial:
- Proof of sale of alcohol to the intoxicated patron
- Injuries sustained
- Proximate cause between the alcohol sale and intoxication
- That intoxication was at least one cause of the third-party damages
Not all dram shop laws are the same. They can differ quite a bit. States that have dram shop laws may define specific terms in their statutes differently. Words such as "guest," "patron," and "retailer" can carry different meanings.
The so-called obvious intoxication test is commonly applied. This test evaluates whether a retailer knew or should have known that a patron was so intoxicated that more alcohol would cause danger to that person or others.
As of 2023, 42 states and the District of Columbia have dram shop laws in effect. The scope of these state laws varies. The states without dram shop laws are Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, and Virginia. Liability claims for retailers that serve underage patrons may still apply even without full dram shop laws. See the DUI Laws and Resources section to learn more about the DUI laws in your state.
Have More Questions About Dram Shop Laws? Talk to a Lawyer
A DUI arrest can result in many repercussions. It can also have civil impacts on a driver who injures someone and on the bar owner serving the driver. If you've been arrested for driving under the influence or are facing liability for someone else's DUI, contact a local DUI attorney. A personal injury attorney can offer legal advice and help you understand dram shop rules and any applicable statute of limitations.
A personal injury lawyer can also help you as an accident victim or if a loved one has been injured or killed. You may be able to bring a personal injury claim against a tavern or liquor store for injuries caused by an intoxicated individual.