Dram Shop Laws

A man and a woman leave a bar at the end of a long night of drinking. They’re only a few miles from home, along quiet roads they know well, and they figure they can make it. They’ve done it before. This time, though, a deer jumps out in front of them. The car swerves off the road and rolls down an embankment. It’s hospital stays for both of them, a totaled car, and a DWI for the driver.

A week later, the bar owner gets notice: both the couple and the state are suing her for overserving them. She’s looking at up to $250,000 in civil liability, loss of her liquor license, and maybe jail time. The bartender who served them is also named, and could face $5,000 in fines, job loss, and jail time. Both could also be prohibited from serving alcohol again anywhere.

Bars and restaurants first started being held accountable for their drunken patrons’ actions in the middle of the 19th century. Before that, the legal precedent was that it was the drinker’s choice to get drunk and do something stupid, so it was their responsibility alone. Rising alcohol consumption, and in particular the often-pushy tactics of 19th-century saloons (or “dram shops”), changed the public’s mind. It seemed like the status quo just wasn’t doing the trick—the prospect of being held liable wasn’t enough to get people to stop drinking dangerously, and the bar owners encouraging all the drinking could do so with impunity.

Responding to the public outcry (and the increasingly powerful Temperance movement in particular) “dram shop” laws sprung up around the country, allowing victims of drunks’ crimes to sue the bars where they had been served, and the state to file criminal proceedings against the establishment as well. Once in place, these laws largely stayed the same (minus Prohibition, of course) for over a century, until rising awareness of drinking and driving in the 1970s led governments to strengthen them. This is when server liability entered the picture, so now it wasn’t just the bar, but the bartender, who could be held liable. In recent years, as alcohol-related rules have rolled back across the country, dram shop laws have not followed the trend, and have actually gotten stricter in some states.

It’s hard to judge the value of these laws, because the circumstances of each case differ so dramatically. Sometimes, this is litigious excess at its worst, with a local business person—or worse, some poor 20-year-old server—spending time and money to defend themselves in court against some asshole who drank too much, did something stupid, and then sued them over it. In other cases, it’s an unscrupulous bar owner encouraging overserving in the name of profits, or not taking the time to properly train their staff. Sometimes it might also be a server who is unwilling to deal with the often awkward, fraught process of cutting someone off. Each time a tragedy occurs, the blame shared by the various parties will be different. How the heck do you write a law that accounts for that?

This is one of the things I miss the least about tending bar—the thought that if I misread a customer and serve them when I shouldn’t, it could come back to haunt me in such a big way. That fear, as much as I hated it when I was behind the bar, leads to what I think is the major benefit of these laws—they scare bar owners into training staff and servers into paying more attention to how much their patrons have had to drink, likely preventing issues before they occur. The threat of the dram shop law is more important than its actual use. I have no idea how frequently bars have actually been prosecuted under these laws, but if the bar (pun intended) is very high—if it takes real negligence for the bar or the server to end up in court—then they are probably worthwhile.

Now, if you’ve never tended a bar or owned one, and this feels like a big case of “not my problem,” keep this in mind: many states have a similar law, known as “social host liability,” that holds party hosts accountable for the actions of their guests. Ain’t nobody off the hook.[i]

[i] Sources/Further Reading:

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ list of dram shop laws by state: http://www.ncsl.org/research/financial-services-and-commerce/dram-shop-liability-state-statutes.aspx

Barrett, Katie. “Drink, Drive, Sue, Repeat: The Vicious Cycle Created by Voss v. Tranquilino.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 81:3 (2013)

This case summary from Connecticut

Savage, Richard. “A Comparative Analysis of Dramshop Liability and a Proposal for Uniform Legislation.” The Journal of Corporate Law 25:3 (2000)

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