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Dram Shop Laws

Aside from the often devastating impacts of drunk driving, DUI collisions also can expose drunk drivers to lawsuits for a victim's injuries or death. Furthermore, "dram shop" laws in most states allow victims of drunk driving accidents (or their families) to hold bars and alcohol retailers accountable for the death, injury, or any other damages caused by an intoxicated customer.

Similar to dram shop laws are social host liability laws, which hold the hosts of private functions liable for injuries (or death) caused by their negligence in serving alcohol and/or failing to prevent an impaired guest from driving.

What is a Dram Shop?

"Dram shop" laws are named after establishments in 18th Century England that sold gin by the spoonful (called a "dram"). These laws are enforced through civil lawsuits, allowing DUI victims or their families to sue alcohol vendors or retailers for monetary damages. Typically, when the plaintiff wins a lawsuit against both an alcohol vendor and the intoxicated driver, the compensatory damages are divided between the two defendants.

In one such case, a New Jersey jury awarded $135 million to the family of a girl paralyzed in 1999 after a drunk driver collided with the car in which she was riding. The drunk driver reportedly had a blood-alcohol concentration that was double the legal limit after leaving a New York Giants football game. It was determined that the concessionaire at Giants' Stadium shared the liability for the victim's serious injury.

Proving Fault in a Dram Shop Case

But proving fault of the alcohol vendor is a relatively difficult task. For example, how do bartenders know whether a patron is drinking on an empty stomach, has a low tolerance or was intoxicated before entering the establishment? How do they know the patron even drove a car?

Plaintiffs invoking the Illinois Dramshop Act, to give an example, must be able to prove the following at trial:

  1. Proof of sale of alcohol to the patron
  2. Injuries sustained by the patron
  3. Proximate cause between the alcohol sale and intoxication
  4. Intoxication was at least one cause of the third-party damages

Not all dram shop laws are the same - in fact they can differ quite a bit. States that do impose a dram shop laws may define specific terms in their statutes differently. Words like "guest or patron" and retailer can carry different meanings.

One commanality is often the application of the “obvious intoxication test,” where a retailer knew or should have known that the patron was so intoxicated that more alcohol would cause danger to himself or to others.

Currently 43 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of dram shop law in effect, varying in scope. Those states without dram shop laws are Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Virginia. 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 -- huge fines, a suspended driver's license, and other penalties. But, it can also have civil impacts on both the driver and the bar who served the driver. If you've been arrested for a DUI or are facing liability for someone else's DUI, it's best to contact a local DUI attorney who will evaluate all the evidence against you, including the procedure and results of any field sobriety and chemical tests, and defend you in plea negotiations and/or court.

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