Businesses may be liable in some cases if they sell alcohol to certain individuals who cause harm or damage to people or property due to their intoxication. These situations involve dram shop laws, which many states in the U.S. have to hold businesses accountable for wrongfully serving alcohol to potentially dangerous individuals.
Knowing more about dram shop liability and the states where these laws apply may help you determine if you have a case against business owners for serving alcohol when they shouldn’t have.
What Are Dram Shop Liability Laws?
Dram shop laws make businesses responsible for either selling or serving alcohol to underaged or intoxicated patrons who go on to cause property damage, injury, or death in their inebriated state. Business owners and employees should always check customer IDs and determine if the customer is already too drunk to purchase another alcoholic beverage.
The dram shop rule began in the 1700s when the temperance movement developed. This movement would be the primary motivation behind the Prohibition Era in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The name “dram shop” comes from the British method of measuring alcohol in dram units, 3/4 of a teaspoon. Pubs, bars, and taverns that sold alcohol in 18th century Britain in drams were known as dram shops, but the term now extends to all businesses selling or serving alcohol.
There aren’t currently any federal dram shop laws in place, leaving this legislature up to state governments. To date, 38 states have dram shop laws, but they work slightly differently in each state. In most states, these laws apply to third parties, meaning that victims of harm resulting from an illegally served intoxicated individual may file claims or lawsuits against the intoxicated individual and the business that served them. However, some states also allow the intoxicated individual to file first-party claims against businesses for over-serving them.
Dram Shop Laws in New York
The state of New York has dram shop laws in place in the form of the New York Dram Shop Act. This act prohibits the illegal sale of alcohol to specific individuals, including those under 21, visibly intoxicated, or alcoholics.
Section § 11-101 specifically allows individuals to seek compensation from business owners if they or a loved one sustained any harm as the result of the actions of an illegally served individual. Some of the details in this legislature indicate who can file a claim or suit against liable parties. The potential claimants in these cases may include the individual the drunk person harmed or the victim’s husband, wife, child, or parent. If parents wish to file a lawsuit on behalf of their children, either parent can sue alone; but if one parent recovers compensation, this will prevent the other parent from recovering additional compensation.
In addition to business owners, individuals in New York can file lawsuits against negligent social hosts who serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated drinkers of legal drinking age or younger at social events if the drinker causes an accident or injuries. This is known as social host liability.
Like other case types, dram shop lawsuits have a specific statute of limitations that gives individuals a limited time to file a lawsuit. In New York, the statute of limitations is three years from the date of the injury or wrongful death resulting from an intoxicated individual’s actions.
Dram Shop Laws in Connecticut
Connecticut is another state with dram shop liability laws through its own Dram Shop Act. This particular Dram Shop Act makes any individual or business that sells liquor to intoxicated persons liable if injuries or property damage result from the drinker’s actions. Parties who wish to file a dram shop lawsuit in this state won’t need to prove the seller’s negligence.
Under the Dram Shop Act, the maximum amount plaintiffs can hold sellers liable for is $20,000 per person and $50,000 per incident.
Like in New York and New Jersey, social host liability applies in Connecticut. This type of liability enables individuals to hold social hosts liable for civil damages if they serve alcohol to minors who cause accidents in their intoxicated state.
The statute of limitations for these cases is considerably shorter in Connecticut compared to other states with dram shop laws. Individuals have only up to one year following the date of sale of alcohol to sue liable sellers.
Dram Shop Laws in Massachusetts
Massachusetts’s dram shop laws work somewhat differently from the previous states. Unlike New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, Massachusetts doesn’t have a specific dram shop law that enables individuals to file lawsuits against liable alcohol vendors. State statute does, however, prohibit vendors from selling or serving alcohol to minors and intoxicated persons, making vendors liable if they violate this law.
Also, there is no particular statute in Connecticut detailing social host liability. Despite this, it’s possible for individuals to sue social hosts for damages that intoxicated guests cause if they negligently serve alcohol to guests who are already intoxicated and the intoxicated individuals cause damages.
The statute of limitations for these cases in Massachusetts is typically three years from the date of injuries or other damages.
Recoverable Damages in Dram Shop Lawsuits
Like other types of liability cases, you may be able to seek compensation in a dram shop lawsuit. These damages include economic and non-economic damages, along with potential punitive damages.
The economic damages people may sustain in these cases could include:
- Medical bills for treating injuries.
- Lost income resulting from being out of work due to recovery or disability.
- Property damage that the intoxicated person caused.
In cases involving wrongful death, economic damages could include those experienced before and after the person’s death and funeral and burial expenses.
Non-economic damages may also apply in these cases. These are less tangible than economic damages and refer to the pain and suffering victims or their loved ones experience after an accident. These damages could include physical pain, psychological distress, depression, anxiety, disfigurement, and loss of consortium or support.
In addition to these compensatory damages, punitive damages may apply to your case if the dram shop owner, social host, or intoxicated individual acted with gross negligence or malicious intent. The courts can award these in civil suits to prevent similar acts of negligence or maliciousness from occurring in the future.
An attorney may be able to help calculate all damages involved in a dram shop liability case. This could entail obtaining and reviewing all medical records and other evidence showing the financial and personal losses sustained because of an accident resulting from the actions of an intoxicated person.
Proving Dram Shop Liability
If you want to file a dram shop lawsuit against liable vendors, you will often need to prove multiple items to begin the settlement process. Dram shop violations constitute strict liability tort, meaning that vendors selling alcohol have a duty not to sell alcohol to minors, individuals who are visibly intoxicated, or other individuals indicated under dram shop laws.
In many of these cases, you must prove:
- You sustained injuries or other types of damages because of an intoxicated person’s actions
- An alcohol vendor illegally sold or served alcohol to the intoxicated person
- The sale or serving of alcohol contributed to or led to the individual’s intoxication
Depending on the state, individuals may also need to prove that a person was visibly intoxicated during an illegal sale or accident, which can be challenging. Sometimes it’s not particularly easy to tell if a person is intoxicated, as alcohol can affect the drinker’s mental state well before intoxication becomes apparent.
It may be possible to prove “visible intoxication” based on various indicators, such as slurred speech, the smell of alcohol on the person’s breath, unsteadiness, bloodshot or glassy eyes, or other evidence. These cases may also involve multiple witnesses and experts who can further help prove that a person was visibly intoxicated at the time of serving or sales.
What to Do After an Accident With an Intoxicated Individual
If you or a loved one sustains injuries or other types of damages because of the actions of someone apparently intoxicated at the time of the incident, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the drinker and any businesses or social hosts who served or sold alcohol to them. You will need to take the right steps to build a case against all liable parties, which will entail the following key steps:
Follow Your Doctor’s Orders
One of the most important steps you can take is to adhere to your doctor’s orders after the accident if you sustained injuries. Maintain copies of all medical records and bills, which could help you prove the damages resulting from an accident involving an intoxicated individual.
You may need substantial evidence to prove not only that an alcohol vendor or host was liable for illegally serving an individual but also evidence of “visible intoxication” and the damages you sustained.
Gather as much evidence as you can to support a potential claim against all liable individuals and entities involved. This could include medical records, police reports, video or photographic evidence, witness testimony, expert witness testimony, and more.
Speak With an Attorney
The next step would be to begin a potential lawsuit with the help of an experienced dram shop liability attorney in your state. An attorney can determine if you have a case they can represent. The attorney may then be able to help collect evidence to help prove your damages, visible intoxication, and liability on the part of alcohol vendors or social hosts.
Get the Help You Need to Build a Case Today
If you’re in a state with dram shop laws, you may be able to file a lawsuit against alcohol vendors who illegally serve individuals who cause accidents while intoxicated.
Reach out to an attorney to discuss your case and the specific options available to you regarding recovering compensation. You may be able to recover total compensation in these cases for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death.