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Every 51 minutes, someone dies in an alcohol-related car crash. Every day, 30 people do. Every year, more than 10,000 people are killed in crashes caused, at least in part, by an intoxicated driver, according to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
States have experimented with many legislative strategies to prevent people who are drunk from hitting the road. They’ve increased penalties for DUI, raised sales taxes on beer and liquor and tried lowering the legal limit. But the most effective technique, according to public policy researchers, is allowing people who get hurt by drunk drivers to sue the bars and restaurants serving alcohol in the first place.
States With Dram Shop Protections
In 35 states and the District of Columbia, bars and restaurants that are licensed to sell alcohol can be held accountable for doing so illegally:
- selling to minors
- furnishing patrons who are already visibly intoxicated with more alcohol.
If patrons who were illegally served go on to injure innocent people, in a fight or car accident, the establishment can be held accountable for a victim’s damages in a “dram shop lawsuit.” These laws are often called “dram shop laws,” after the teaspoons of liquor, or “drams,” commonly served in early-American taverns.
Here are those 35 states. We’ll point out state-specific quirks as we go:
- Washington, D.C.
- Florida – Where adult patrons are concerned, Florida State statute restricts cases to injuries caused by “habitually addicted” drinkers, rather than the “visibly intoxicated” used in most other states.
- Mississippi – In Mississippi, evidence that a patron was “visibly intoxicated” is required for adults, as in most states, but also for minors. In other words, bars can not be held liable for injuries caused by intoxicated minors who weren’t visibly intoxicated when they were served alcohol.
- Missouri – Dram shop lawsuits in Missouri are limited to establishments licensed to serve alcohol “on the premises.” Bars and restaurants can be sued, but liquor stores usually can’t.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Several states “split the difference,” limiting dram shop claims to those involving intoxicated minors:
- North Carolina
Licensed establishments in those states can be held accountable for serving minors alcohol, but not for serving “visibly intoxicated” adults. California is a special, even more limited case. Accident victims in California can only sue licensed establishments for serving minors who were “visibly intoxicated.”
Georgia, Michigan and Texas also have their own unique laws on the issue:
- In Georgia, a licensed establishment must have “knowingly” served alcohol to a minor or visibly intoxicated patron. But there’s another element of knowledge necessary, too. The server must have known that the patron would have been driving soon.
- In Michigan, accident victims have every right to file a dram shop lawsuit, but they have to name the intoxicated patron, either minor or adult, as a defendant in the same action.
- Texas defines minor as someone under the age of 18, at least for the purposes of dram shop lawsuits. Serving a minor defined that way is illegal in Texas, and dram shop liability would apply. When patrons are over 18, Texas statute has specific language to note: the patron must have been “obviously intoxicated to the extent that [they] presented clear danger to [them]selves and others” for liability to apply.
Currently, 7 states don’t recognize dram shop liability, even when minors were served alcohol:
- South Dakota
Some of those states don’t have specific laws addressing the issue, but case law and prior court decisions have set the precedent. Other states, like Louisiana, have actually passed laws explicitly invalidating dram shop claims.
Do Dram Shop Laws Work?
Yes. Many states have observed significant decreases in car crashes after instituting dram shop laws. In fact, dram shop laws have been shown more effective than taxing alcohol at a higher rate and increasing DUI penalties.
In some states, the positive effects have been incredible:
- Texas – After a major dram shop lawsuit was filed in 1983, Texas saw a 6.5% decrease in single-vehicle nighttime accidents that caused injury. An additional 5.8% drop in these crashes was observed after a second dram shop case was filed in 1984.
Out of all policies intended to reduce alcohol-related accidents, “laws allowing individuals to sue bars for the drunken behavior of their patrons were the policies most strongly associated with lower minor and adult fatality rates.” That quote comes from a study, published by the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention in 2000, which
It’s not hard to see why dram shop laws have this effect. When licensed establishments serve alcohol illegally, they can get hit in the wallet. Big time.