What are the elements of a dram shop liability case?

Victims of alcohol-related injuries may be able to seek recompense from businesses that contributed by serving minors or visibly intoxicated patrons.

Although many people in Pennsylvania may see drinking as a harmless social activity, it plays a role in many unnecessary injuries and deaths each year. Besides ranking as a leading cause of car crashes, alcohol use is a factor in an estimated 40 percent of violent crimes throughout the U.S., as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports. Tragically, the victims of these incidents are frequently innocent bystanders.

In some cases, the establishments responsible for providing the alcohol that helped cause these incidents may be considered liable for the resulting damages. However, victims must be able to prove several facts in order to secure recourse through a dram shop liability claim.

Negligence in serving

To be held liable for alcohol-related injuries, a business must have served alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated. Alternately, a business may be found liable if it provided alcohol to a minor.

Direct evidence, such as eyewitness testimony, may establish that a person was visibly intoxicated when the business served him or her. If this type of evidence is lacking, circumstantial evidence may be used. For example, by assessing the results of blood alcohol concentration testing performed after the person left the business, an expert may project how intoxicated the person likely was while receiving service.

Proximate cause

A business can only be held liable in a dram shop liability case if its decision to serve a minor or a visibly intoxicated person was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. In other words, the actions of the business must have played a direct, significant role in causing the injuries. The following are examples of cases when a business might be considered liable:

  • A patron leaves the establishment in his or her vehicle and causes an accident while driving under the influence.
  • A patron starts a physical altercation at the bar, restaurant or nightclub that provided the alcohol.
  • An intoxicated patron leaves the premises and commits a violent offense, such as alcohol-related assault or robbery, shortly afterward.

In cases where other factors also contributed to the victim's injuries, however, it may be more difficult to prove that the actions of a business were a proximate cause.

Additional factors

Besides meeting the above criteria, all dram shop liability claims must be made within Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for personal injury claims. This is typically two years from the date of injury. However, minors have until two years after they turn 18 to bring claims.

Given these relatively short deadlines, most people who have suffered harm in an accident or violent offense involving alcohol can benefit from consulting with an attorney immediately. An attorney may be able to assist a person in assessing who is liable for the injuries and seeking any damages that might be available.