Proving Liability for Injuries Caused by Serving Alcohol

Find out who’s financially liable for serving alcohol that leads to serious injuries. Get the compensation you and your loved ones deserve.

Intoxicated drivers are responsible for 29 deaths every day on American roadways. ¹ Alcohol is the main cause for more than half of all non-fatal injuries, on and off the road. ²

The intoxicated individual is the person who is most responsible for the harm they’ve caused to you or a loved one. However, you might also have the right to seek compensation from the individual or business that served alcohol to the at-fault person.

Here’s what you need to know about laws that place injury liability on the host who serves alcohol, whether at a bar, party, or private residence.

What are Dram Shop Laws?

Bars, taverns, clubs, or other establishments that serve alcohol are some of the most common places where people drink.

Long ago, businesses served alcohol in small amounts measured as drams. Establishments serving alcohol were called dram shops. Dram shop liability refers to the area of law that makes businesses responsible for the acts of their drunken patrons.

States with dram shop laws impose liability on an establishment if it provided alcohol to a customer to the point of intoxication, and the customer later caused an accident and injured someone.

The original reason for dram shop laws had to do with insurance. A bar’s business insurance policy couldn’t always cover all the damages caused by an intoxicated customer. Dram shop liability laws helped victims recover more compensation from the bar or club.

Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia have some type of dram shop law in effect.

Jurisdictions that don’t have dram shop laws include:

  • Delaware
  • Nevada
  • Nebraska
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland

The extent to which an establishment is held liable depends on its location.

State dram shop laws differ when it comes to: 

  • The legal standard for liability
  • Liability limits
  • Notice requirements

The Legal Standard for Liability

Generally, negligence is the legal standard used to impose liability in dram shop cases. This means an injured party must prove that the establishment or the person who served the alcohol either knew or should’ve known that the patron was drunk.

Sometimes states award additional damages to a victim if they can show that the person who served the alcohol was reckless. When it comes to dram shop liability laws, reckless means the person continued to serve alcohol despite knowing that the act created a risk of harm.

Liability Limits

Some states’ dram shop laws put limitations on what makes a business responsible and how much they have to pay in compensation.

States like California say that a bar is only accountable for injuries if the person who caused the accident was underage.

California Business & Professions Code section 25602.1 states:

“…a cause of action may be brought by or on behalf of any person who has suffered injury or death against any person licensed, or required to be licensed, pursuant to Section 23300, or any person authorized by the federal government to sell alcoholic beverages on a military base or other federal enclave, who sells, furnishes, gives or causes to be sold, furnished or given away any alcoholic beverage, and any other person who sells, or causes to be sold, any alcoholic beverage, to any obviously intoxicated minor where the furnishing, sale or giving of that beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained by that person.”

BPC 25602.1

Also, many states set damage caps. Damage caps mean that even if an establishment is liable for injuries caused by a drunk patron, there is a limit to the amount the victim can recover.

Notice Requirements

Some states require injury victims to notify the business if they are considering filing a legal action under the state’s dram shop laws. Sometimes this notice is required within a short period, at times as little as 60 days from the date of the accident.

Contact an experienced personal injury attorney to find out about the applicable laws and deadlines in your location. 

Defenses to Dram Shop Laws

When a victim files a lawsuit under state dram shop laws, lawyers representing the establishment being sued will defend the business by arguing that the business wasn’t to blame for the actions of the intoxicated patron.

Common defense arguments include: 

• The patron showed no evidence of intoxication
• Nonalcoholic beverages were available
• The establishment encouraged the customer to use a taxi or ride-share service

What are Social Host Laws?

Social host liability laws hold the person hosting a gathering accountable for damages caused by their intoxicated guests.

Depending on the state, when a party guest becomes intoxicated and then injures someone else, the victim may have a right to seek compensation from the person who hosted the party.

Though similar to dram shop laws, social host laws differ in that a person doesn’t have to sell alcohol to a person to assume responsibility for an accident. The law holds accountable the person who gave or provided alcohol to a guest, to the point of intoxication, when the guest injures a third party.

While most states have dram shop laws, not all states have social host liability laws.

Who Can Be Held Liable?

Social host liability laws usually pertain to homeowners, renters, or anyone who provides alcohol to a guest who gets drunk and harms someone else.

These laws do not require that the host was throwing a party. For example, it is enough if a person has a small get-together and gives too much wine to a friend.

It’s important to know that most states only impose social host liability laws when a host provides alcohol to someone under 21, the legal drinking age.

Who Can Bring a Claim?

Generally speaking, in states that have social host liability laws, anyone who was injured by a drunken guest can bring a personal injury claim against the person who hosted the event.

Some states make a distinction between first-party social host liability cases and third-party social host liability cases.

In first-party social host liability cases, the injured victim is the same person who was given the alcoholic beverages. Most states don’t allow first-party claims unless the intoxicated person was a minor at the time of the injury.

Example: Party Guest Crashes His Car 

Joe is a 32-year-old man who attends a birthday party at Ben’s house.

Despite Joe slurring his words and struggling to stand without falling over, Ben gives him another drink.

Joe drives off from the party 20 minutes later. He makes it three blocks before crashing his car into a tree and sustaining life-threatening injuries.

If Joe lives in a state that allows for first-party social host liability, he can sue Ben for his injuries.

Third-party social host liability cases are when the injured plaintiff is someone other than the person who was given the alcoholic beverages.

A typical third-party case arises when someone leaves a party intoxicated, gets behind the wheel, and gets in a car accident that injures another person.

Example: Party Guest Crashes into Pedestrian

Joe attends a birthday party at Ben’s house.

Despite Joe slurring his words and struggling to stand without falling over, Ben gives him another drink.

Joe drives off 20 minutes later.

He makes it three blocks before crashing his car into Lisa, who is legally walking across the street.

As a result, Lisa sustains permanent disfigurement and paralysis.

If Lisa lives in a state that allows for third-party social host liability, she can sue Ben for her injuries, in addition to Joe.

Proving Social Host Liability

While alcohol-related car accident claims require proving the intoxicated driver’s negligence, social host liability cases are not always based on the same standards.

While they can be based on negligence, social host liability cases can also be based on the host’s recklessness or intentional conduct, depending on the specific state law.

Recklessness occurs when someone is aware of a substantial risk that something unsafe will happen but consciously ignores it and commits an act anyway.

Under social host liability standards, a reckless host keeps giving a guest drink after drink, despite knowing that the guest is already intoxicated.

Intentional Conduct occurs when the host acted with some type of intent or knowledge. Most cases in this area turn on whether a host knew that a guest was under 21.

States are divided on the underage knowledge requirement. Some states say that blame is only imposed if a host actually did know that a guest was under 21, and still served that guest alcohol.

Example: A Host Serves a Friend’s Younger Brother

Josh throws a house party that Kim attends with her brother, Michael. She introduces Michael as her “little” brother, although he’s much taller than Kim.

Josh has never met Michael before, but Michael looks to be in his mid-twenties. However, Michael is only 20.

Josh serves both Kim and Michael several vodka tonics.

Michael causes a car accident later that night due to his intoxication and injures Christina.

Christina’s attorney not only seeks compensation from Michael, but also files a lawsuit against Josh to recover additional compensation for Christina’s severe injuries.

If this occurs in a state that requires actual knowledge of a guest’s age, Josh wouldn’t have to pay for the injuries.

This is because Josh did not, in fact, know that Michael was underage. Josh believed that Michael was over the legal drinking age.

Other states say that a host is liable if they should have known the guest was underage.

Example: Host Should Have Known Guest’s Age

Walt throws a house party and invites Riley. Riley is 24 and brings a date, John. Walt has never met John and thinks he looks younger than Riley but doesn’t ask his age.

Within an hour, John consumes four mixed drinks.

When he asks Walt for another drink, he seems almost drunk. Walt, though, gives him another drink and still doesn’t ask his age.

John drives his car to take Riley home from the party. He’s involved in a car accident due to his intoxication and injures Carol.

Walt could be held liable for Carol’s injuries in a state that says a host should know a guest’s age before serving them alcohol.

John showed signs of intoxication and he looked young, but John simply never asked his age.

Supplying Alcohol to Underage Individuals

While you may believe that it’s never okay to give alcohol to anyone under the legal drinking age of 21, there are certain circumstances when parents, guardians, or spouses may legally allow an underage person to be given alcohol.

Exceptions include when alcohol is supplied to an underage person for:

  • Educational purposes – Students who are enrolled in culinary school may consume small amounts of alcohol as part of a course of study.
  • Law enforcement purposes – A minor can consume alcohol if he or she is undercover as part of a “sting” operation.
  • Lawful employment – Minors who work in the food and beverage or restaurant industry can purchase alcohol for their employer. However, they cannot legally drink it.
  • Medical reasons – Minors can consume medications that contain trace amounts of alcohol if prescribed by a physician.
  • Religious purposes and activities – More than half of all U.S. states permit minors to drink alcohol as part of a religious ceremony or service.

Underage drinking exceptions only apply when the alcohol is consumed in the presence of an adult, guardian, or spouse, who gives the underage individual permission to do so.

Since states differ, it’s essential to know what your jurisdiction allows.

Tribal lands are outside federal government jurisdiction. There are no federal laws regarding a minimum drinking age on Native American reservations since they are considered independent and self-governing entities. ³

The Crime of Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor

Aside from limited special circumstances, it’s always a crime to supply alcohol to individuals who are underage.

How the Law Defines Supplying Alcohol to Minors

While there are a variety of ways in which a person can supply alcohol to a minor, many people are not aware of them all.

For instance, many people don’t know that in most states, “supplying” alcohol to a minor includes having it in your home without blocking access to it.

In other words, an adult does not even have to be physically present to be charged with supplying alcohol to an underage person.

Example: Parents Allow Underage Guests and Have Alcohol in the Home

Tom’s parents permit him to have friends over to the house for a small party while they’re away.

Tom is 19, and so are his friends.

Tom’s parents have a liquor cabinet that they don’t routinely lock.

Tom’s friend, Gary, drinks half of a bottle of rum from the liquor cabinet before driving away and getting into an accident where he injures Sue.

Sue can not only pursue compensation from Gary’s insurance company, but she can also file suit against Tom’s parents for additional injury compensation.

Further, Tom’s parents could face criminal charges for not locking their liquor cabinet to protect underage guests.

Generally speaking, in situations where a parent or adult was unaware that alcohol was available to minors, the laws are not enforced.

What Happens if You Supply Alcohol to Minors?

You can face criminal charges if you supply alcohol to minors. You can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending upon the specific facts of the case.

Most often, though, supplying alcohol to a minor is charged as a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor alcohol charges are punishable by:

  • Jail time for up to a year
  • Fines up to $5,000 in some situations and states

When supplying alcohol to a minor is charged as a felony, it’s often because:

  • There has been an accident or injury associated with the use of the alcohol; or
  • The individual who supplied it was convicted of the same crime multiple times

Felony charges are punishable by:

  • Jail time for at least a year
  • Fines of up to tens of thousands of dollars

Individuals who are convicted of supplying alcohol to minors are usually placed on probation and may have to complete community service.

Businesses convicted of supplying alcohol to minors often face fines and even license suspension or revocation. The owners and employees of such businesses are also open to personal injury lawsuits in civil court.

You Deserve Full Compensation for Your Injuries

If you’ve been the victim of an accident that occurred because the at-fault person was drunk, you deserve fair compensation for your injuries from all the liable parties involved.

Take steps to gather critical evidence after an accident, and preserve your rights by talking to an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

Whether you were injured by an intoxicated person in a car accident or a bar fight, your attorney can determine if the establishment that served the person who hurt you is liable for your damages.

Don’t let the clock run out on your right to compensation.

Injury claims are subject to your state’s statute of limitations. If you fail to settle your claim or file a lawsuit within the statutory time frame, you lose your right to seek compensation.

Dram shop liability laws can have very short deadlines. Some states require a formal notification to be issued in as little as 60 days after your injury.

That’s why it’s essential to consider speaking to a personal injury attorney right away to preserve your rights.

An attorney can evaluate the specific facts of your case to determine applicable laws that will help your claim. Your attorney will identify all sources of potential compensation and ensure that your claim or lawsuit is properly filed before any deadlines.

A skilled personal injury attorney will handle all interactions with the insurance companies, and any corporate defense lawyers.

Most injury attorneys offer free consultations for accident victims, and many will take your case on a contingency fee basis. You won’t have to pay any legal fees until your case is settled or you win an award in court.

Find out how an attorney can help you today.

Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>