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When Are Bars Liable for Overserving Alcohol?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 19, 2013 10:04 AM

Vendors, bars, and social hosts -- or as 18th Century England would like to call them, dram shops -- can be held responsible for injuries that result from their patrons' boozin' and cruisin'. But when does this liability attach?

Most states have some sort of dram shop law that allows DUI-related accident victims to hold a drinking establishment responsible for their injuries.

So when exactly are bars liable for overserving alcohol?

When They're Supposed to Say 'When'

The purpose of dram shop laws is pretty straightforward: to discourage vendors from serving a patron who is clearly wasted and past the legal blood-alcohol limit.

Since bartenders have the choice to stop or continue serving booze to patrons, placing liability on them for drunken driving-related injuries or deaths will (in theory) make them think twice before topping off a driver who is showing signs of heavy intoxication.

The rationale may be simple, but proving fault of the alcohol vendor is far from it. The difficulty of establishing a clear dram shop fault standard is reflected in the wide variety of state dram shop laws. They differ quite a bit.

'Obvious Intoxication Test'

One commonality, however, is the application of the "obvious intoxication test." It is as technical as it sounds (as in, not at all). Generally, a bar can be liable for overserving alcohol if a retailer knew or should have known that the patron was so intoxicated that more alcohol would cause danger to himself or to others.

Again, a pretty simple-sounding test. But in practice, it can get pretty complicated. Should they have known the patron was drinking on an empty stomach, had a low tolerance, or was already buzzed before entering the bar? Should they know if a patron drove or not?

If you throw some of the best cocktail parties in town, you may also want to watch out. Many states also enforce dram shop provisions for social hosts who furnish alcohol to minors or persons who are obviously intoxicated at a party. Did you know that you could be on the hook for any accidents that occur from an intoxicated guest at your party -- even off-site?

Might not be a bad idea to water down those margs. Just a little.

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