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Four Misconceptions About Dram Shop Laws

Most states today have statutes that impose liability on bar, restaurants, liquor stores, or other establishments that sell alcohol to intoxicated customers. If a person is injured by an intoxicated person, such as in a motor vehicle accident, then the crash victim may be able to sue the establishment that provided the intoxicated individual with alcohol. While fairly common nowadays, dram shop laws were not always so widespread and, in the past, many courts considered bars and similar places to have no liability in what their customers did after they left. Here we will look at four surprising facts about dram shop laws.

Dram shop laws are civil laws

Dram shop laws allow injured individuals to sue establishments that are to some extent liable for intoxicating the individual who subsequently caused the plaintiff’s injury. In other words, such laws concern civil lawsuits rather than criminal proceedings. Generally speaking, a bar that is successfully sued for negligence under a dram shop law will not have any of its employees face prison time–although the establishment could be forced to pay damages to the plaintiff.

Intoxicated minors can sue if they injure themselves

Any establishment can be held liable if it serves alcohol to a minor, since such an act is illegal in all 50 states. Some states, however, go even further and allow minors who injure themselves because of their own intoxication to sue the establishments that served them alcohol under state dram shop laws. This level of liability is designed to further discourage establishments from serving alcohol to minors.

And even some intoxicated adults can sue

While it makes sense that an intoxicated minor who injures themselves after being served alcohol should be able to sue the establishment that served them, what may be more surprising is that some states even allow adults to sue alcohol-serving establishments if their intoxication also causes them to injure themselves. This is called first-party dram shop law and it is actually banned in many states. Some states, however, do allow it, although they are very hard cases to prove since most juries tend to believe that a person is, to some extent, responsible for his or her actions even when intoxicated.

Most cases are based on recklessness

Most dram shop cases are not based on negligence, but rather recklessness. That’s because for a dram shop case to succeed, the plaintiff typically has to show that the server intentionally served alcohol to a patron despite knowing that the patron was visibly intoxicated (or a minor) and despite knowing that there was a significant risk that further intoxicating the patron could result in physical harm to the patron or others (such as if the server knew or should have known that the patron would be driving).

Dram shop laws remain controversial since many people worry that they unfairly hold people accountable for other peoples’ actions. However, as the above article demonstrates, dram shop laws are about making sure everybody takes responsibility for his or her actions, including making sure those working in bars and restaurants limit the deadly risk of drunk driving whenever they can.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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