Are you or a family member the victim of a drunk driver who went bar-hopping before driving intoxicated? Were you assaulted as a bystander by a drunk patron in a bar fight or a brawl outside a tavern? You may have a right to sue the bar under what are called "dram shop" laws.
Many states hold commercial vendors of alcohol (bars, taverns and package stores) responsible for injuries caused by drunk patrons. Different laws apply to social hosts and employers throwing office parties.
A drunk person can't collect for injury to himself, but a third party injured by the actions of a drunk person can collect from a bar or tavern under certain circumstances. This is especially important when the drunk person has little or no insurance to cover a serious or fatal injury.
Laws in most states require the injured person suing a commercial alcohol vendor to prove that the serving of alcohol was a "proximate cause" of the injury. In other words, you must show a provable connection between your injury and the drunk person's act of drinking at that particular bar or tavern.
Laws vary widely by state. In Nevada, commercial vendors won't be held responsible for injuries caused by drunk patrons, probably because of the devastating impact it would have on the tourist industry. In some states, commercial vendors will only be held responsible for serving alcohol to minors.
In other states, the amount of damages that can be collected from a commercial vendor is capped at a specific amount, under the theory that the major share of blame for the injury should be placed on the drunk person.
Most states hold a commercial vendor liable where:
- Alcohol was served to a minor
- The vendor was reckless in serving or should have realized the extent of the patron's intoxication
- The vendor sold liquor without a liquor license
- The vendor sold liquor after hours
The burden of proof is lower when a bar or tavern has served a minor, as it's illegal.
The test for deciding whether a bar employee should have realized the extent of a patron's intoxication is fuzzy. Courts look at the condition of the drunk person, and whether it should have been "foreseeable" to a bar employee serving him or her that the person was already "visibly intoxicated" and shouldn't be served any more alcohol. It's not a matter of how many drinks the person has had, but how the alcohol has affected them.
Proving Excess Intoxication
So how do you prove the person who injured you or your family member was "visibly intoxicated?" Some states have tried to clarify this vague test by requiring proof that the drunk person demonstrated "significantly uncoordinated physical action or significant physical dysfunction." In other states, you must prove that the bar patron was so obviously intoxicated that he presented a "clear danger to himself and others."
If you or someone you love has been injured by a drunk person whom you suspect may have been served alcohol by a commercial vendor before the injured occurred, it's important to see a lawyer right away. Proving the obvious intoxication of a bar patron often requires eyewitness testimony of other bar patrons and employees. A lawyer can locate and interview these witnesses quickly, and get witness statements right away while they still remember accurately what happened and before they clam up.
The time limit for filing a legal action against a commercial vendor- called a "statute of limitations" - is often very short. So it's very important to develop and file your legal action quickly in order to collect.
Sometimes employers will have events, such as holiday parties, after working hours for their employees. These parties will many times take place at bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. If an intoxicated employee causes property damage or commits harassment, the vendor and the employer may be found liable. The employer is liable if a court determines that the employee was acting within the scope of his employment.
Employers need to take reasonable steps to prevent misconduct on the part of their employees at parties that serve alcohol. Some examples include:
- Discourage excessive drinking by having a cash bar
- Have strict alcohol and behavior discipline policies in place
- Provide transportation after the party to prevent driving under the influence
Questions for Your Attorney
- Who's liable if an intoxicated person involved in a car accident visited multiple bars before the accident?
- How do I track down witnesses from a bar to prove excess intoxication? Can I use waitresses that worked in the bar as witnesses to prove my case?
- Who's liable if an employee gives alcohol to his son at an employer event for employees and their families that's held at a restaurant?