If you’ve experienced an injury due to the negligent actions of an intoxicated person, you may have the option of bringing a personal injury claim against them. There’s another legal remedy that’s less widely understood and may also be available to you.
In New York State, dram shop liability laws prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages to anyone under the age of 21 and those who are “visibly intoxicated.” That means you may be able to hold the bar, restaurant, or nightclub responsible for illegally serving the person who harmed you.
By imposing a hefty financial cost for violating the law, dram shop liability is designed to discourage businesses from overserving patrons or providing alcohol to minors. This legal principle is also essential to help victims receive fair compensation for their damages after getting hurt by someone intoxicated.
If the negligence of a drinking establishment injured you or someone you love, an experienced car accident attorney can help you understand the best options for protecting your legal rights.
What is Dram Shop Liability in New York State?
In New York State, businesses that sell alcohol are liable for damages if they serve an individual who is underage or visibly intoxicated and that individual then causes harm to another person. This law is intended to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths and injuries due to over-consumption.
There’s a limit to preventing someone from purchasing alcohol at a liquor store, getting very drunk, and then driving a vehicle or engaging in another destructive act. However, when people are consuming alcohol at a restaurant or bar, there are very reliable measures to stop patrons from overindulging.
By law, servers, bartenders, and other staff members should undergo training to intervene when someone appears visibly intoxicated or may be underage.
Laws That Apply Dram Shops
A dram shop is any establishment that serves or sells alcohol, including bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and private clubs. In New York, dram shop laws are governed by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, commonly referred to as the ABC Law, which includes three separate ordinances: General Obligations Laws 11-100 and 11-101, and Alcohol Beverage Control Law 65.
These laws outline the legal responsibility of establishments that sell or serve alcohol to customers. They also protect victims of negligence who have suffered injury or other damages due to illegal alcohol sales.
Overserving Alcohol and Its Consequences
Overserving is a term used in the context of dram shop liability to describe the act of providing too much alcohol to a consumer, which is generally understood as serving someone that’s obviously intoxicated or has had more than three drinks in an hour.
Overserving is illegal because the effects can be serious, including health, safety, and legal repercussions for patrons, staff, and the general public. These laws are designed to reduce the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, such as drunk driving, violence, or other harmful situations.
While each individual is personally responsible for the amount of alcohol they consume, New York State law also recognizes that establishments have a duty to ensure customers are not drinking too much.
Different people react differently to alcohol consumption. Therefore, the unwritten definition of visibly intoxicated is largely left up to the employee serving the alcohol, as they have firsthand knowledge of the customer’s behavior.
Notable signs indicating a customer is drunk include slurred speech, lack of physical coordination, and a general lack of composure and control. These signs are especially true of bar-hopping customers who were already drunk upon arrival.
By training employees to be proactive in recognizing the signs of intoxication, businesses can take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their customers from the potential dangers and legal implications of serving alcohol to an intoxicated person.
Social Host Liability
Social host liability is a slight variation of dram shop liability that applies to individuals who provide alcohol in a non-commercial setting. This law applies to adults hosting a private party in their home or a parent allowing their children to invite friends for a booze-fueled party.
If proven that the social host illegally served alcohol to someone under 21 and that person caused injury or harm to someone else, injured parties can hold the social host liable for the ensuing damages.
What Are the Elements of a Dram Shop Case?
Violating New York State’s dram shop laws is a strict liability tort, meaning that alcohol vendors have an absolute duty to not serve anyone under 21 or to stop serving those who already appear to be intoxicated. Under strict liability, the threshold for holding a business responsible is lower than having to prove negligence, which would require showing that the defendant being sued was directly responsible for causing the victim’s injuries.
In a dram shop claim, the plaintiff only needs to show a “practical and reasonable connection” between their injuries and the defendant’s illegal sale of alcohol. In other words, bars and restaurants do not receive much leeway once it’s proven that they broke the law.
However, establishing liability under the New York State dram shop law does require meeting certain criteria.
The victim must show that their injuries might not have occurred if the defendant had not illegally served the patron with alcohol. Meeting this threshold includes proving:
- The reckless actions of an intoxicated person caused your injuries.
- That the intoxicated person received an unlawful commercial sale of alcohol, either because they were either under 21 years old or were visibly intoxicated at the time of the sale, as shown by witness testimony, surveillance footage, or other evidence.
- This illegal sale of alcohol directly caused or contributed to the person’s intoxication by presenting evidence that alcohol had impaired the patron’s mental and physical faculties, causing them to act recklessly and cause the victim’s injuries.
Examples of Dram Shop Liability Cases In New York State
- Example 1: A bartender serves a patron who has just arrived and orders their first drink with slurred speech. When the customer leaves the bar and causes an accident due to driving erratically while intoxicated, the bartender and their employer are legally responsible for the resulting damages. The closer in time that the DWI incident happens after the patron leaves a bar, the higher the chances of establishing the bar’s liability.
- Example 2: A restaurant serves alcohol to a customer without asking for identification. This person was under the age of 21. When they get into a drunk driving accident that causes injuries, the restaurant is held liable.
- Example 3: Bar fights that stem from over-consumption are a common scenario for dram shop liability. If bartenders continue to serve a patron that’s already visibly intoxicated and that person becomes aggressive with other customers, leading to serious injuries, the establishment can potentially be held accountable. The victim’s dram shop liability attorney can prove the patron was overserved with eyewitnesses or surveillance video showing the patron falling off their stool or being obnoxious and loud while still being served. In some cases, credit card records can be used to prove how much alcohol they had been allowed to purchase.
- Example 4: The parents of teenage boys allow them to have a large party at the family home with easy access to alcohol. If one of the teenage guests gets intoxicated, gets in their car, and crashes into another vehicle, the parents who knowingly facilitated the intoxication of minors can be sued for damages under social host liability.
Economic damages will generally include:
Getting seriously hurt will come with astronomical hospital bills, which is why reimbursement for past and future medical expenses are usually the biggest priority of a dram shop liability.
These costs can include:
- Ambulance transportation
- Emergency services
- Bills for all medical providers during an extended hospital stay
- Prescription medication
- Assistive devices like a wheelchair or respirator
- Ongoing services, like physical therapy or home health aides
After getting injured by alcohol-related negligence, many victims will see their income seriously affected due to their inability to work during their recovery. A dram shop liability claim can pursue compensation for all lost wages that resulted from the incident, as demonstrated by employment records and other evidence. If they’re contending with brain trauma, spinal cord damage, or other catastrophic injuries, victims may have disabilities that make it much harder to earn a living or even force them out of the workforce.
Wrongful Death Damages
Over-consumption of alcohol can lead to unimaginable tragedy, including preventable deaths that leave behind grieving loved ones. Dram shop liability claims in New York State allow close family members, like spouses, children, and parents, to compensate for the wrongful death of their relative.
These costs can include:
- Medical expenses incurred by the deceased before they passed away
- Lost income the victim will no longer contribute to the household
- Funeral and burial costs
How a Dram Shop Liability Attorney Can Help
Recovering compensation after a harmful accident caused by an intoxicated individual can require navigating an incredibly stressful and difficult process. If you were injured or a family member was killed due to a person who was illegally served alcohol, you may seek compensation and justice through a dram shop liability lawsuit.
However, take action quickly due to New York state’s strict statute of limitations for these cases, which is three years. Dram shop cases are complex affairs, with multiple parties, overlapping claims, potential conflicts of interest, and lots of evidence to sift through. Working with a skilled New York dram shop liability attorney is highly recommended to protect yourself and ensure the best possible chance of a positive outcome.
Here are some of the ways a lawyer can help.
- Establish liability: One of the complexities of dram shop liability cases is that many drinkers will wander between different establishments, so it can be hard to determine who was responsible for over-serving them. Lawyers use all available resources to build an accurate timeline. They can also gather solid evidence establishing dram shop violations, often due to either neglecting to have the appropriate policies in place or failing to train their staff well enough to comply with legal requirements.
- Gather and review all evidence: Litigating this type of case effectively requires a comprehensive investigation, including witness statements, company records, police reports, and the testimony of experts, such as a toxicologist or accident reconstructionist.
- Negotiate with insurers: It’s important to note that most dram shop liability cases settle out of court. Having a lawyer to negotiate with insurers on your behalf can make all the difference in reaching a fair agreement that covers your damages.
With the right legal support, victims of alcohol-related negligence can seek justice and recover the compensation they deserve.
Mr. Finkelstein is the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, LLP. He has become a noted consumer activist through his representation of injured individuals against corporate wrongdoers and irresponsible parties.
An accomplished litigator, Mr. Finkelstein has represented Plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has successfully handled dozens of multi-million dollar cases.