Deciphering the “Dram Shop Law”: New York State’s Liquor Liability Statutes

By | April 6, 2017

A family goes out to dinner and is sideswiped by a drunk driver on their way home. A couple meets some friends for an evening out only to have it end in an assault in the parking lot by a bar patron who’s had way too much to drink. 

In New York State, the law obviously allows an individual to recover damages from the intoxicated person that caused them an injury. But what happens if the drunk driver has limited or no insurance? What if the bar patron has no assets? There may not be adequate financial means to fully compensate a person for their injuries. 

The good news is that in certain instances there may be an additional party to pursue a personal injury claim against…the intoxicated individual may share liability for the damages with another negligent party. Enter the “Dram Shop Law.” 

New York law imposes a duty on the owners of restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to patrons responsibly. This means that a bar or restaurant may not sell alcohol to anyone under the age of twenty-one. It also means that they may not sell alcohol to visibly intoxicated adults over the age of twenty-one. Failure to adhere to this law will expose the Restaurant or Bar to liability for the intoxicated individual’s negligent or intentional actions that cause another injury. This has become known as the, “Dram Shop Law.” The name comes from the term dram, which is defined as a small unit of liquid.

The most common types of injury-causing incidents involving intoxicated persons are motor vehicle accidents. Another common type of incident is assault by an intoxicated person. In order to prevail in a dram shop case against a restaurant or bar, a plaintiff will need to establish several facts. 

First, whether it is a motor vehicle accident or assault case, the plaintiff will need to establish that their injury resulted from the defendant’s intoxication. This may not be so easy to do. Often this process relies on the criminal investigation that was done by the police at the time of the incident. In situations where there was no investigation and no evidence gathered, just proving the defendant’s intoxication becomes an issue. Without the defendant’s blood alcohol levels being measured and secured by the police, the plaintiff has to rely on eyewitness testimony after the fact to prove intoxication. 

Merely proving the defendant’s intoxication at the time of the injury is not enough to succeed in a dram shop case if the defendant is over twenty-one. There is a second issue to contend with. It must be established that the defendant was visibly intoxicated before or while being served alcohol at the establishment. It must be proven that the defendant was acting in an intoxicated manner and that employees or owner(s) witnessed that conduct, but negligently continued to serve the intoxicated person anyway. 

Some common indicators of intoxication are slurred speech, unsteadiness on the feet, glassy eyes, unnecessarily loud speech and an aggressive demeanor. The more traits of intoxication displayed, the stronger the case will be. Conversely, if the intoxicated individual showed no signs of intoxication prior to, or while being served alcohol, a dram shop case will not succeed.

The evidence of visible intoxication can come from several sources. It can be an eyewitness at the establishment, an employee of the establishment, a videotape taken within the establishment; or even from the plaintiff, if they were present at the time.

Finally, an important aspect of any dram shop case is insurance. Since most bars and restaurants serve alcohol, they will usually carry dram shop insurance because of the tremendous financial exposure the law imposes.

When someone has been injured as a result of the negligence of an intoxicated individual, it is important to explore these types of cases. There may be more than one defendant who shares the liability for the incident. With a case such as this, having a personal injury lawyer with experience handling liquor liability is imperative in holding all liability parties responsible.

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