The owner of a restaurant or bar can be held legally responsible in instances when an intoxicated person caused a car accident. The laws that govern these instances in which a person imbibed an alcoholic beverage at a restaurant or bar and then were involved in a car accident are commonly referred to as 'Dram Shop Laws'. State laws usually vary on the specifics on when a restaurant or bar is responsible, but most all states have some type of 'Dram Shop Law' as part of the laws involved with licensing and serving of alcoholic beverages at an establishment. The only states without any type of Dram Shop Law that allows for assigning liability from over-serving a patron are Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Virginia.
Proving A Dram Shop Case
A person involved in a car accident with a drunk driver must typically demonstrate the driver was served alcoholic beverages ‘beyond a reasonable limit’ to bring a successful lawsuit against a bar or restaurant. Usually a person that is injured oneself from being served too much alcohol is barred from bringing a lawsuit. Most state legislatures bar such claims under the belief that a person should be responsible for one's own injuries that are the consequence from over-consuming too many alcoholic beverages. There is usually an exception made for minors that are served alcohol and then bring a lawsuit from self-sustained injuries. Consequently, it is critical for owners of bars and restaurants to make sure that they do not serve alcohol to a person that is underage. It is the responsibility of the establishment to verify the person is of legal age by checking for their birth-date on a valid driver’s license.
The most successful types-of lawsuits are when innocent third parties are hurt by an intoxicated driver that has left an establishment after consuming too many alcoholic beverages. In instances in which a person is injured by a drunk driver there is liability when the establishment is negligent in over-serving a patron. In order to prove negligence against a restaurant or bar, the plaintiffs need to prove that there was a duty of care that was breached, and the damages are a consequence thereof. For a plaintiff to win in a dram shop case there must be a demonstration that the server or bartender continued to serve a customer alcohol knowing that the person was too intoxicated to continue drinking or that the server should have known that it was unsafe to continue serving the customer alcohol. In instances in which the plaintiff can show that the server or bartender was reckless there may even be an allowance by the court for special damages. Both standards, negligent or reckless follow a "reasonableness test", meaning that a reasonable person should have known that serving the alcohol would likely be unreasonably dangerous, but the establishment served the alcohol anyways. Reckless conduct is even more extreme and unreasonable than mere negligence.
Types of Evidence in a Dram Shop Case
The type of evidence used to prove that a restaurant or bar should be held liable for over-serving a customer can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or a finder of fact. Some states have laws that indicate negligence can be determined when the server does not check identification of the customer to make sure the person is of valid legal age to drink. Other factors include the time of when the beverage was served. Serving a customer after the establishment has already closed may be considered evidence that the customer had too much to drink. Any testimony from other customers that the person appeared to be too intoxicated or evidence of the actual quantity of drinks consumed may be enough to establish the fault of the business.
On the other hand, evidence that may indicate that the establishment is not negligent may be the existence of a training program or education program to teach servers on how to make sure not to over-serve a customer. Witness testimony from other patrons that encouraged the person to take a taxi or cut off the patron from drinking is sometimes considered relevant evidence that the establishment should not be held negligent.
Most states have dram shop laws that allow a plaintiff to sue a restaurant or bar for injuries that are a result from serving too much alcohol. A lawsuit for physical injuries, wrongful death or other consequential damages that result from an accident due to over-serving alcohol can be for many millions of dollars. Many juries award high monetary judgments in Dram Shop cases which reflects the increased intolerance of society to excuse an establishment from liability when they over-serve a customer that causes harm to others.
The social outcry against drinking and driving gained traction in America in the 1980’s and has not since abated in the decades thereafter. Business that serves alcohol are no longer permitted to turn a blind eye to the act of over-serving alcoholic beverages to their customers. Many states have promoted a zero-tolerance policy towards businesses that permit a customer to drive under the influence after imbibing too much alcohol. New laws and policies by states have even most recently passed “Social Liability Laws”, which operate like ‘Dram Shop Laws’, but instead an individual homeowner can be held liable for over-serving their guests. The trend in American jurisprudence is towards assigning greater responsibility to the persons that server alcoholic beverages to mitigate against the harmful consequences.