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Can Bartenders Get Arrested When Customers Commit Crimes?

By George Khoury, Esq. on June 19, 2019

Keeping bar isn't an easy job, and it's definitely one filled with risks. Apart from clients skipping out on tabs and not tipping, bartenders also have to worry about legal liability related to over-serving patrons who then go out and commit crimes or injure others.

In most states, there are laws, known as dram shop laws, which impose criminal penalties and/or civil liability when a bartender continues to serve a patron who is already drunk if that patron leaves and causes injuries to others, at least partly, because they were drunk.

Dram Shop Liability for Murder

Usually, dram shop liability revolves around drunk driving accidents, and it is not uncommon to hear about bars and bartenders getting sued after a drunk driver who was served alcohol at the bar caused an accident resulting in another person's injury.

Even in states where individual freedoms are regarded as sacred, like Texas, dram shop laws are used to hold alcohol serving establishments liable, both civilly and criminally, when drunk patrons harm others. One recent cases out of Texas involves a drunk driver hitting two bicyclists, killing one, while another involves a bar patron who left the establishment then went to his ex's home and murdered her along with seven other people.

Criminal Penalties for Over-Serving

For the most part, the criminal penalties for over-serving a bar patron are simple misdemeanors which involve a fine and sometimes a short jail sentence of no more than a year (usually for the more severe incidents, though this varies from state to state). Additionally, the claims are rather difficult to prove, though with cheap and easy security surveillance systems increasingly available, a bar's own security system may provide all the evidence needed.

Civil liability can be devastating for a bar, as a DUI crash that results in the death of a third party can result in a bar and bartender facing a wrongful death lawsuit. Civil wrongful death lawsuits can often result in massive judgments against bars that over-serve, particularly when there is clear evidence that the bar should have stopped serving the patron.

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