Dram Shop Laws: Can Bars Be Held Liable for Drunk Driving Accidents?

Dram shop law varies from state to state in the U.S., with 43 states having adopted some form of them and allowing some degree of liability against drinking establishments who allow visibly intoxicated patrons to drive away. However, this is practically the only aspect of dram laws that is fairly uniform throughout the nation.

The individual states have adopted some wide-ranging views on how best to handle the problem of drunk driving accidents, with some allowing a high degree of bar owner liability and some allowing none.

Dram Shop Law Intent

The idea that a bar owner should be held liable for any damage caused by an individual's personal choice to consume too much alcohol almost seems unjust, but there are reasons why some states consider it a violation of the law. For one thing, any individual who is obviously drunk and whose actions demonstrate clear loss of control should not be served more alcohol, according to some state legislatures.

The intent of dram shop laws is to encourage bar owners to train employees to recognize when this point has been reached by a patron, and cut off any further service or sale of alcohol. When this guideline is ignored, it becomes much more likely that a patron will leave the bar and cause some kind of harm to himself and/or others by causing an auto accident. It might also be that the patron becomes belligerent with excess alcohol and engages in a fistfight with other customers at the bar. Both types of behavior are clearly unacceptable. 

Impact of Dram Shop Laws

There are thirty states which consider alcohol-serving establishments to be liable for any injuries or fatalities caused by an individual who was served or sold alcohol at that establishment, and became intoxicated as a result. Most of these states limit liability to cases where the individual being served was a minor, or who was clearly intoxicated and still received service. Some states only permit liability in cases where the person served was underage, while other states consider establishments entirely exempt from liability and shift all responsibility onto the individual.

In certain states, there is no criminal liability at all when a person who is overly drunk injures only himself (for instance, by falling down in the parking lot or driving into the guard rail after leaving the bar). Nor can that individual sue the bar owner for any kind of damages because the decision to consume excessive alcohol rested solely with the consumer in the first place.

Another group of states consider the bar owner and patron to be equally at fault. When damages or fatalities occur to third parties, the two at-fault parties are expected to share in whatever financial liability results from a court case. There are also established monetary limits that such liability can be extended to, and the relative portions the bar owner and bar patron are responsible for is determined during the hearings. 

The Bottom Line

For anyone involved in a drunk driving accident, or anyone who has caused some kind of physical or financial harm to others as a result of being intoxicated, the bottom line penalty assessment is largely dependent upon which state the incident occurred in. Depending on where it happened, statutory dram shop laws may find the bar owner partly liable, the bar owner and patron equally liable, or neither one liable.

No matter which state an incident occurs in, however, the prudent course of action is to promptly consult with an attorney who is well-versed in that state's interpretation of dram shop laws.

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