If you are hit by a drunk driver and can prove that the driver got drunk in a bar, depending on the evidence you may be able to bring a dram shop case against that bar. Dram shop laws relate to cases in which a person has received alcohol from an establishment and then causes an accident or injury while in an intoxicated state. These laws allow victims who were hurt by the intoxicated driver to pursue compensation from the establishment or party that provided alcohol to the intoxicated driver.
The Purpose of Dram Shop Liability
When a drunk driver causes an accident, the results are often catastrophic. Since alcohol intake is linked with inhibited judgment and delayed reactions, a drunk driver who causes a crash may be traveling at a higher speed than a driver who is more alert. As such, the policy limits on an insurance policy may not be adequate to fully compensate a victim for the injuries that he or she suffers. Dram shop liability allows an accident victim to pursue compensation from a business with deeper pockets in order to receive compensation for the injuries that he or she has suffered.
According to Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Law, any establishment or licensed individual who gives alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person can be legally held responsible for injuries and damages that person might cause. Pennsylvania’s dram shop and liquor liability laws apply to all drinking establishments, including but not limited to bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels, that carry alcohol licenses and serve alcohol to their customers for commercial profit.
Bringing a Pennsylvania Dram Shop Action
In order to maintain a cause of action in Dram Shop cases, a claimant must present evidence that is sufficient to meet the requirements of Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Act. Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Act reads as follows: “No licensee shall be liable to third persons on account of damages inflicted upon them off the licensee’s premises by customers of a licensee unless the customer who inflicts the damages was sold, furnished or given liquor or malt or brewed beverages by said licensee or his agent, servant or employee when said customer was visibly intoxicated.” 47 P.S. § 4-497. See Tuski v. Ivyland Café, 2004 WL 4962363 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2004).
It is well-settled in Pennsylvania that in order to be held liable under the Pennsylvania Dram Shop Act, 47 P.S. §4-493(a), an injured plaintiff must prove two things: “(1) that [he] was served alcoholic beverages by a licensee while visibly intoxicated and (2) that [the] violation of the statute proximately caused [his] injuries.” Johnson v. Harris, 419 Pa. Super. 541, 550, 615 A.2d 771, 775 (1992); Hinebaugh v. Pennsylvania Snowseekers Snowmobile Club, 2003 WL 23105240 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2003).
In Dram Shop cases, “The jury may not be permitted to reach its verdict merely on the basis of speculation and conjecture, but there must be evidence upon which logically its conclusions may be based.” Rohm & Haas Co. v. Continental Casualty Co., 732 A.2d 1236, 1254 (Pa. Super 1999). However, expert testimony corroborated by additional circumstantial evidence is sufficient to state a cause of action that will withstand summary judgment on the issue of whether a patron is visibly intoxicated. Fandozzi v. Kelly Hotel Inc., 711 A.2d 524 (Pa. Super. 1998).
Pennsylvania Dram Shop: Additional Applications
Although Pennsylvania Dram Shop law is mainly applied after a drunk driver causes a serious car accident. it can apply in various other situations as well, including:
• If a person is visibly intoxicated, served alcohol, and then starts a fight with others, the injured person can sue the bar, restaurant, and/or private event host under the Dram Shop law.
• If a restaurant serves a visibly intoxicated person and that person trips, falls, or gets seriously injured while walking back to their car.
What is ‘visibly intoxicated?
While everyone would like to consider himself or herself an expert in spotting signs of intoxication (slurred speech, leaning against the bar for support, fumbling with the wallet or money, swaying while attempting to stand still, etc.), it is important to note that these signs vary greatly from one person to another.
In fact, under dram shop and liquor liability law, a drinking establishment such as a bar or restaurant cannot be held liable for the injuries or damages caused by an intoxicated person if the establishment had no reasonable ground to know that the customer was intoxicated. For example, if the establishment kept serving drinks to a person who did not manifest any signs of intoxication at the bar, and then that person decided to take his car for a ride and injured someone outside of the establishment, the injured party would not be able to hold the establishment liable despite the fact that the DUI driver was visibly intoxicated at the time of the accident (after all, the driver did not manifest any signs of intoxication when ordering drinks).
First Party and Third Party Claims
There are also two main types of dram shop cases, first party dram shop cases and third-party dram shop cases.
First-Party Dram Shop Cases
A “first party” dram shop case exists when the injured plaintiff is the person who was sold the alcoholic drinks. Pennsylvania Courts do recognize an action for First Party Liability brought by an injured intoxicated patron or customer. Generally, section 4-493 of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code makes it unlawful for a licensee to serve one who is visibly intoxicated. Courts have noted that section 4493 was enacted not only to protect society in general, but also to protect intoxicated persons from their inability to exercise self-protective care. Schelin v Goldberg, 188 Pa. Super. 341, 146 A.2d 648 (1958). To be successful in a first party claim, plaintiff must show (1) that he or she was served alcoholic beverages while visibly intoxicated and; (2) that this violation proximately caused his injuries. Schelin, supra.; McDonald v. Marriott Corp., 388 Pa. Super. 121, 564 A.2d 1296 (1989); Smith v. Clark, 411 Pa. 142, 190 A.2d 441 (1963).
However, first party dram shop cases are very difficult to win. The reason is that juries tend to think that people should be responsible for their own actions. If someone gets drunk at a bar, drives away, and gets into a car accident, that person is going to have a very difficult time convincing a jury that it was the bar, and not the person him/herself, who should be responsible for his/her injuries.
There is one exception to this rule — first party dram shop cases involving minors. If a minor child is served at a bar, gets drunk, and gets injured, juries will often hold the bar responsible.
Third-Party Dram Shop Cases
A “third party” dram shop case exists when the injured person is someone other than the drunk person. So, if you are hit by a drunk driver, and the driver got drunk at a bar, you would potentially have a third-party dram shop case against the bar.
Pennsylvania Courts do recognize an action brought by a third party injured by an intoxicated adult or minor served or sold alcohol by a liquor licensee. As previously stated, in the case of an adult, the plaintiff must prove: (1) that an employee or agent of the licensee served alcoholic beverage to a customer while visibly intoxicated; (2) that violation of the statute proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Hiles v Brandywine Club, 443 Pa. Super. 462, 662 A2d 16 (1995); Mathews v. Konieczny, 515 Pa. 106, 527 A2d 508 (1987).
Keep in mind it is not enough for a plaintiff to establish merely that alcoholic beverages were served to a patron or that the patron was intoxicated at the time the patron caused injuries to another.
Important Evidence in Dram Shop Cases
Dram shop laws often identify certain types of evidence as being particularly significant with respect to the bar’s liability. For example, some dram shop laws state that the following is evidence that the bar was negligent:
• Serving a patron without requesting proof of age
• Serving someone who appeared to be intoxicated
• Serving someone after closing time
• “Over serving” a patron
Dram shop laws also may outline evidence that may show that the bar was not negligent. For example, the following policies are the types of policies that may be admissible at trial as evidence that the bar was not negligent:
• The bar sends its servers to an approved server education course
• The bar encourages its customers not to become intoxicated
• The bar promotes the availability of nonalcoholic beverages
• The bar encourages its customers to take a taxi home if they have had too much to drink.
Due to the possibility of short notice requirements, it is important that an accident victim speak immediately to a personal injury lawyer to preserve his or her rights. A West Chester dram shop lawyer can discuss the laws in the state where the action is brought and how they may affect a claim. He or she can also ensure that a lawsuit is filed within the relevant time frame to avoid passing the statute of limitations. He or she can also retain the services of an alcohol expert who can explain to a jury the effect alcohol has and when these effects may become evident. If you believe you may have a potential Dram Shop case, contact us today for a FREE consultation.