What Is Dram Shop Law?

January 16, 2023

An Overview of Dram Shop Law

Dram shop laws hold an owner liable for selling alcohol to a customer who then injured someone else. Examples of its application include injuries caused by drunk driving accidents or fights. Not every state has dram shop laws, but in most dram shop law states, the dram shop must have had a reasonable suspicion that the customer was intoxicated or a minor to be liable.

The Liable Party

Dram shops are usually places that sell alcohol, such as bars or restaurants. In Pennsylvania, the dram shop liability law applies to all holders of liquor licenses. This includes private events that hold liquor licenses as well.

A licensee who served alcohol to either a visibly intoxicated person or a minor who injures a third person can be held liable for the injured person's damages. This is true even if the injuries occurred on private property other than the dram shop's premises. 47 P.S. § 4-497.

In addition, the intoxicated person may also sue the dram shop for their own injuries. However, these cases are often not successful because of Pennsylvania's comparative negligence statute, which does not permit recovery if the plaintiff was more negligent than the defendant. Essentially, the dram shop's defense would be that the intoxicated person's negligence was a greater cause of their own injuries than the dram shop's negligence. A minor who was served alcohol may have a better case against the dram shop than an intoxicated adult. But, Pennsylvania courts have applied comparative negligence to cases brought by minors, as well. 

In addition to private lawsuits brought by third parties, the dram shop may face penalties from the Pennsylvania State Police and Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (BLCE). 47 P.S. § 4-493(1). The license holder may have to pay a fine or face suspension of its liquor license. 47 P.S. § 4-471(b).

What Evidence May Include

To establish liability under dram shop laws for your injuries, you must prove two things: (1) the licensee served alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or a minor, and (2) serving alcohol to the intoxicated person or the minor is the proximate cause of your damages. 

Evidence of Serving Alcohol 

Evidence that a licensee served a minor is relatively simple. Once the minor's age is established, the only required evidence is proving that the licensee served the minor alcohol. This evidence could include receipts, surveillance or other video evidence, or witness testimony. Most commonly, witness testimony is used.

Evidence that the licensee served a visibly intoxicated person can be more difficult. The person's intoxication must have been visible. Some signs that the person was intoxicated may include slurred speech, loud talking, stumbling, consuming a large number of drinks, or drinking quickly, among others. 

Evidence of visible intoxication may include social media posts, video evidence, witness testimony, or receipts showing the number of drinks sold to the customer. Breathalyzer, blood alcohol, or field sobriety test results along with expert testimony may be used but only if there is other evidence. Because some people are capable of having a high blood alcohol content without visible signs of intoxication, courts have held that these test results are not admissible without some other proof of the customer's visible intoxication.

The Cause of the Injuries

Liability under dram shop laws requires more than only proving that the dram shop served a minor or a visibly intoxicated person. You must also prove that serving the alcohol was the cause of the injured person's damages. This may be easy to do if the customer was driving while intoxicated and got into an accident, causing the injuries. But it may be more difficult in other circumstances.

Damages That the Intoxicated Person May Have Caused

In dram shop law cases, the damages frequently result from a physical injury caused by a car accident or a bar fight. In a successful dram shop law case, you will be awarded your actual damages, which may include some or all of the following;

  • Medical expenses. Medical expenses include things like hospital bills, therapy fees, prescription costs, and other medical bills. These can be expenses you have already incurred as well as medical expenses you will have in the future due to your injuries.
  • Lost wages or lost future earnings. These may include any wages you have lost because you missed work due to your injuries. Lost future earnings may be awarded if you will only be able to perform lower-paying jobs in the future because of your injuries.
  • Property damage. If your property was damaged, then you may be entitled to replacement or repair costs.

In addition to actual damages, you may also be entitled to pain and suffering.

Dram Shop Law Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations in Pennsylvania is two years. Because this is a relatively short statute of limitations, you should not delay in seeking legal counsel if you have been injured by an intoxicated person.

An Explanation of Social Host Liability

Liability for serving minors in Pennsylvania is not limited to liquor license holders. Even social hosts — someone who does not operate a business or other establishment — may be held liable for damages caused by serving alcohol to a minor. In these cases, you must prove that the social host intended to give a minor alcohol and actually gave the minor alcohol, usually by doing one of the following:

  • Planning to serve the minor alcohol
  • Serving the minor alcohol 
  • Supplying or purchasing alcohol for a minor

Unlike dram shops, a social host cannot be held liable for serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. Further, minor social hosts are not liable for serving alcohol to other minors.

Speak to a Lawyer About Potential Legal Remedies

If you have been injured by an intoxicated person or a minor who was served alcohol, you may be entitled to compensation from the dram shop or person who provided the alcohol. You don't have a lot of time to file a claim. So you should contact the attorneys at McEldrew Purtell who specialize in dram shop laws right away.