Can I sue a bar after an alcohol-related accident?
A dram shop law holds an establishment that sells alcohol responsible for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.
The term “dram” refers to a unit of measurement (roughly ⅛ of a fluid ounce). In the 18th century, establishments that sold alcohol by the dram were called “dram shops.”
Most states have dram shop laws, but each state’s law varies with respect to when the law applies and who may be held liable.
Let’s take a look at California’s dram shop law.
What is California’s dram shop law?
California’s dram shop law (sometimes called a “social host liability law”) can be found in California Civil Code Section 1714.
Unlike most states, California’s dram shop law explicitly states that the “furnishing of alcoholic beverages is NOT the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.”
In other words, an establishment or social host that provides alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person in California will not—in most cases—be held liable for the damages caused by the intoxicated person.
Let’s look at a hypothetical:
Susan just found out that she passed the California Bar Exam. To celebrate, she has a couple of friends over to her apartment, where she consumes several alcoholic beverages. After her friends leave, Susan decides she wants to continue celebrating. She drives her car to the Starlite in San Diego, California.
When she enters the Starlite, she stumbles up to the bar and orders a Margarita. After finishing her Margarita, she orders another Margarita. At this point, Susan is obviously intoxicated and slurring her words. Nevertheless, the bartender serves her another Margarita.
After finishing her second Margarita, Susan gets in her car and drives home. On her way home, she crosses the yellow line and crashes into a Prius driven by Joe.
Joe suffers a traumatic brain injury and sues both the Starlite and Susan.
Under California’s dram shop law, the Starlite can’t be held liable for the accident. After filing a motion for summary judgment, the Starlite is dismissed from the lawsuit.
As is usually the case when it comes to the law, there are exceptions to California’s general rule that establishments and social hosts are not liable for the damages caused by intoxicated patrons.
Here are the exceptions under California law:
- If a parent, guardian, or another adult knowingly serves alcohol to a person under 21 years of age, the adult can be held liable for any damages caused by the underage drinker. Under this law, actual knowledge is not necessary. It’s enough to be held liable if the adult should have known the person served alcohol was under the age of 21.
- If an employee of an establishment that’s licensed to serve alcohol serves alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated minor,” the employee can be held liable.
Let’s look at a hypothetical:
Samantha is graduating from high school. She asks her father if she can have a party at her house to celebrate her graduation.
Samantha’s father agrees, and Samantha invites 14 of her closest friends from high school over to the house. A couple of hours into the party, Samantha asks her father if she and her friends can have a celebratory toast. Samantha’s father reluctantly agrees and places a bottle of whiskey and several glasses on the table where Samantha and her friends are sitting. He tells them not to drink too much and then leaves the room and goes to bed.
An hour later, after having consumed some of the whiskey, Samantha’s friend Lauren leaves the house and crashes into a pickup truck driven by Dillon.
Dillon suffers a severe back injury in the crash and sues Lauren and Samantha’s father.
Under California’s dram shop law, Samantha’s father can be held liable for the damages suffered by Dillon.
What evidence is important in dram shop cases?
Given that a person can only be held liable if they serve alcohol to a minor (in the case of a social host) or to an obviously intoxicated minor (in the case of an employee licensed to serve alcohol), the following evidence may be important in a California dram shop case:
- Proof of the alcohol consumer’s age,
- Proof that the establishment was licensed to sell alcohol,
- Proof that the consumer was obviously intoxicated (e.g., witness testimony, security footage, blood alcohol concentration).
Keep in mind that a person who is found liable under California’s dram shop law will be responsible for the damages sustained by the consumer and the damages sustained by anyone else injured in a crash caused by the consumer.
What is the statute of limitations for dram shop cases in California?
California limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a personal injury lawsuit under California’s dram shop law. This time limit is called the statute of limitations.
If a person fails to file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations, their lawsuit will be forever barred.
In California, the statute of limitations for dram shop cases is 2 years from the date of the accident.
Are dram shop laws effective?
Drunk driving is a significant problem across the country. In an effort to reduce the number of drunk driving accidents, the majority of states have adopted some form of dram shop law that holds establishments and social hosts liable for recklessly serving alcohol.
The effectiveness of dram shop laws in reducing the number of drunk driving accidents has been well documented.
- A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found “strong evidence of the effectiveness of dram shop laws in reducing alcohol-related harms.”
- A study conducted by the Community Preventative Services Task Force found that “holding alcohol retailers liable for injuries or damage done by their intoxicated customers can reduce motor vehicle deaths, homicides, injuries, and other alcohol-related problems.”
Despite the evidence in support of dram shop laws, California continues to have one of the least strict dram shop laws in the country.
Do I need a California personal injury lawyer?
There are a number of reasons it makes sense to meet with a California personal injury attorney following a car crash, even if you think California’s dram shop law doesn’t apply to your case.
First, as discussed above, there are a number of exceptions to California’s general dram shop law that might allow you to hold an establishment or social host liable.
Second, an experienced personal injury attorney can negotiate with an insurance company or file a personal injury lawsuit against the driver of the vehicle as well as any other third parties who may be liable.
Third, most initial consultations are free, so you have nothing to lose by meeting with an attorney.
According to California personal injury attorney Brett Sachs, founder and principal attorney at MVP Accident Attorneys, a recent study conducted by the Insurance Research Council (IRC) found that “injured people represented by an attorney, on average, receive 3.5 times more money than people who are not represented by an attorney.”