Last November, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a $15 million liquor liability verdict against a convenience store and its owner. Alabama is one of the majority of states that has enacted so-called dram shop laws that hold liquor vendors and social guests liable for injuries and property damage caused by intoxicated patrons or guests. Studies show that these laws reduce drunk driving fatalities but states vary dramatically in how they regulate these establishments and a few states even protect them entirely from liability.
Alabama convenience store ordered to pay $15M
Every state generally allows injured parties to sue those whose negligence caused their injuries but some do not recognize the right to sue a bar or other alcohol vendor. Thirty states, however, have enacted special laws allowing victims to hold licensed establishments like bars and restaurants responsible for the injuries or deaths that result from a patron’s intoxication. The dram shop laws in 22 states limit the bar’s liability to instances where it served alcohol to a patron who was noticeably intoxicated or under the legal drinking age. Some states, like Illinois, limit the amount of the establishment’s liability to certain dollar amounts. Other states, like South Carolina, have found liability for vendors through court cases rather than legislation.
In the November 2015 Alabama decision, the state high court upheld a multi-million dollar jury verdict in favor of the family of a young teen. In 2007, the store sold alcohol to an underage driver who ultimately caused a wreck that a killed 13-year-old boy and injured three others. Alabama’s dram shop statute calls for both civil and criminal liability. The civil portion is broad, stating that any person can be liable for furnishing any liquor or beverages that cause the intoxication that leads to injury.
Liquor liability without dram shop legislation
South Carolina is one of several states without dram shop laws on the books but courts have still recognized a right to pursue a claim against the server. For example, a 2012 jury in South Carolina entered a $3.85 million verdict against the owner of a Columbia sports bar that served alcohol to Billy Patrick Hutto before he caused the crash that killed a 6-year-old girl. Other jurisdictions that rely on case law to find a cause of action against a server include Washington DC, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma.
At the other end of the spectrum are states like Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, South Dakota, and Virginia, with no dram shop liability. Delaware law, for example, prohibits serving a patron who is visibly intoxicated or underage, but it does not recognize a victim’s right to sue the alcohol provider for injuries or property damage.
Do dram shop laws work?
Associations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have advocated for liquor liability laws for vendors and other providers of alcohol. According to a 2011 analysis published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, dram shop laws were associated with an average reduction of 6.4% in crash fatalities. This should not be surprising because the laws give drinking establishments a clear economic incentive for serving alcohol responsibly. It also brings the attention of bars and their employees to the consequences of improper service and encourages proper training for servers to avoid tragedies like the losses of Emma Longstreet and Drew Robertson.
- National Conference of State Legislatures, Dram Shop Civil Liability and Criminal Penalty State Statutes, http://www.ncsl.org/research/financial-services-and-commerce/dram-shop-liability-state-statutes.aspx
- Insurance Journal, Alabama Supreme Court Upholds $15M Verdict in Dram Shop Act Lawsuit, http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/southeast/2015/11/24/389872.htm
- MADD, Dram Shop and Social Host Liability, http://www.madd.org/laws/law-overview/Dram_Shop_Overview.pdf