Dram Shop Laws: Can Bartenders Be Sued for Negligence in Drunk Driving Cases?

November 22, 2011


Here’s an interesting scenario: A bar patron purchases and consumes multiple alcoholic beverages at one establishment before being refused service at another because he is intoxicated. He then makes the decision to drive, loses control of his vehicle, and kills a pedestrian. Afterward, the father of the individual killed sues the first establishment for negligence, and wins.

It may sound like a movie plot, but that’s exactly what happened in Cimino v. The Milford Keg, Inc., 385 Mass. 323 (1981). In that case, a jury found that the bartender was negligent in serving a patron who was exhibiting “drunk, loud and vulgar” behavior and was “visibly intoxicated,” and therefore the death of the pedestrian was proximately caused by the bartender’s negligent act under the state’s Dram Shop Laws.

In the U.S., Dram Shop Laws refer to those laws that dictate liability, either criminal or civil, in cases where the act of providing alcohol may have played a role in an injury or infraction caused by a person under the influence of alcohol. Dram Shop Laws are mainly concerned with the activities of liquor stores and establishments that serve alcohol. The most common incidents addressed by the Dram Shop Laws on the books in more than 40 states involve injuries caused by drunk drivers, but these laws have also been a part of cases involving bar fights and other unlawful behavior.

In Massachusetts, Dram Shop Laws prohibit selling or delivering liquor to an intoxicated person (Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 138 § 69), and any person who suffers physical injury, property damage, or consequential damage may sue a licensed liquor seller who served an intoxicated person. In New Hampshire, a licensed liquor seller is liable if they sell alcoholic beverages to a minor or an intoxicated individual.

On the surface, Dram Shop Laws can seem reasonable. Someone who is “visibly intoxicated” may be a danger to themselves, others, and property, so anyone who provides more alcohol to an already inebriated individual could be making a potential injury or incident more likely. But the reality is that bartenders and other waitstaff are provided with no special training and cannot necessarily be relied upon to provide an expert evaluation of an individual’s behavior or the likelihood that they will commit a crime. Therefore in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and the many other states with Dram Shop Laws, these types of lawsuits remain a tangled knot largely up to juries to unravel.

DUI attorney Michael Bowser has years of experience successfully defending men and women accused of drunk driving in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If you have been charged with a DUI in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, it is vital that you talk to an attorney who understands the law. Call Attorney Michael Bowser today at 1-888-5BOWSER to discuss the circumstances of your case.

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