The Dram Shop Case

The Dram Shop Case

If the title to this article sounds like the title to a Sherlock Holmes story that is no coincidence. After all, the term “dram” is an ancient term which, in merry old England, described a measure of liquid, more properly known as a fluid dram. The fluid dram was equivalent to 1/8th of a fluid ounce, or approximately the amount that a teaspoon would hold in the Middle English era. Of course, the term was also used to describe a taste of the spirits, usually Scotch Whiskey. Establishments that served spirits became known as dram shops. That is, as they say, where the trouble began. As we all know, the consumption of whiskey and other intoxicating brews has led to a world of problems for both the consumers of alcohol, and for those who came in contact with consumers who overindulged.

The problems caused by drunks came to the attention of courts and legislatures who, in many instances, determined that justice required that those who profited from the sales of intoxicating beverages should bear responsibility for providing alcohol to those who should not have it, principally those who are already inebriated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures thirty (30) states have laws that allow licensed establishments such as bars, restaurants, and liquor stores to be held liable for selling or serving alcohol to individuals who cause injury or death as a result of their intoxication. Happily, Pennsylvania is one of the states which have created a law which spells out the responsibility to the public of those licensed to dispense alcohol in the state.

The Pennsylvania “Dram Shop Act” provides in relevant part: 

No licensee shall be liable to third persons on account of damages inflicted upon them off of the licensed premises by customers of the licensee unless the customer who inflicts the damages was sold, furnished or given liquor or malt or brewed beverages by the said licensee or his agent, servant or employee when the said customer was visibly intoxicated. Pa. Stat. tit. 47, §4-497

Stated otherwise, the owner of an establishment which is licensed to sell intoxicating beverages is prohibited from selling, furnishing, or giving such beverages to a customer who is visibly intoxicated. This does not mean that a bar or restaurant is responsible for everything that their patrons may eventually do. It does, however, require that they monitor the conduct and appearance or their customers, and that they refuse to serve anyone who is already displaying evidence of intoxication. Failure to do so will effectively cause the bar or restaurant to answer for the damage the drunk inflicts.

It goes without saying that the most common type of Dram Shop case involves automobile accidents caused by individuals who were served at a point after which they were already visibly intoxicated. The combination of the speed and size of an automobile and a severely impaired driver is often devastating to others. Under certain limited circumstances the Dram Shop Act affords the victim of a drunk driver a remedy in addition to that of pursuing the drunk, who may have little or no collectible insurance or assets.

If it can be shown through competent evidence that the drunk driver was served after he or she was visibly intoxicated the bar or restaurant that served him can be held responsible for all of the damage the drunk driver causes. The public policy is so strong on this point that, unlike virtually every other type of personal injury case, the liquor licensee will be required to pay 100% of a joint verdict against it and the drunk, even if the drunk is found to be 99% at fault, and the liquor establishment only 1%. In other joint cases each defendant will pay only its percentage share of verdict, and the victim may be unable to secure payment of the entire verdict due to limited insurance or assets of the defendant found to be primarily liable. The Legislature specifically excluded Dram Shop cases from the general rule, and created a greater likelihood that the victim of joint negligence of a bar and a drunk driver will be fully compensated.

This firm has successfully litigated cases involving Dram Shop claims. In one instance, the eventual victim of the drunk driver actually witnessed a bartender serve the driver when he should not have done so. The victim left the establishment and went home while the drunk stayed and drank some more before eventually driving to the victim’s home and hitting him with the vehicle. Detailed and timely investigation revealed other witnesses who saw the driver’s condition shortly after leaving the bar and their testimony corroborated that of the victim. Further, by issuing subpoenas to the State Police it was possible to obtain the police cruiser videotape of the drunk driver’s arrest. Finally, a toxicologist was retained to review the available evidence, and he provided an expert opinion that the driver was indeed visibly intoxicated when served by the defendant bar. A favorable settlement followed.

Because recovery against liquor establishments is limited to those instances where it can be proven that the driver was served while visibly intoxicated these cases are difficult to win. However, when such a case is properly pursued it can provide full financial recovery in cases involving serious injuries that might otherwise go begging. Prompt and aggressive investigation is key. Please contact us if you have any questions concerning Dram Shop cases, or other cases involving serious injuries arising from automobile, truck, motorcycle, or construction accidents.