Establishing Dram Shop Liability After an Auto Accident

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Imagine that two cars get into a collision.  The accident was caused by a drunk driver.  Who is at fault for the accident?  You probably answered “the drunk driver,” but believe it or not, you’d only be partially correct.  Due to a legal concept known as dram shop liability, the vendor which sold the drunk driver the alcohol can also share in the fault for the crash. How do Pennsylvania dram shop liability laws work, and where does DUI responsibility stop and start?

Liquor Store Sign

What Are the Pennsylvania Dram Shop Laws?

(A “dram,” by the way, is a small amount of liquid — typically alcohol.) You’ve probably heard about dram shop laws without even realizing it.  Have you ever noticed a sign at a restaurant or liquor store warning that alcohol will not be sold to people who are already visibly intoxicated?  That’s the first half of the concept.

The second half is the more important part.  If the vendor disregards this rule and does proceed to sell alcohol to a visibly drunk patron, that vendor may then be liable for its role in any accidents and damages that subsequently occur as a result.

Under Section 4-493(1) of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, it is unlawful:

“For any licensee or the board, or any employee, servant or agent of such licensee or the board, or any other person, to sell, furnish or give any liquor or malted or brewed beverages, or to permit any liquor or malted or brewed beverages to be sold, furnished or given, to any person visibly intoxicated…”

(It’s worth noting this regulation also extends to “any insane person, or to any minor, or to habitual drunkards, or persons of known untempered habits.”)

Wine Bottles

Proving Dram Shop Liability

Like any other laws, the laws related to dram shop liability have their pitfalls and limitations.

Under Section 47 P.S. 4-497, “No licensee shall be liable to third persons on account of damages inflicted upon them off the licensed premises by customers of the licensee unless… the said customer was visibly intoxicated.”

In other words: if a person who is completely sober enters a liquor store, buys a bottle of wine, drinks it, and proceeds to cause a car accident, the liquor store would not be liable, because the customer was not already intoxicated.

However, the patron being drunk prior to making a purchase is only part of the requirement for demonstrating dram shop liability.  In addition to this factor being present, as a result of Fandozzi v. Kelly Hotel (1998) the party wishing to prove liability must also be able to show that:

  • The customer was, in fact, visibly drunk at the time the alcohol was purchased.
  • The sale of alcohol to the intoxicated customer resulted in injuries.

In order for a case to be effective, both of these points must be demonstrated. It’s also important to note that there’s a difference between visible intoxication, and legal intoxication — and that dram shop liability only involves the former.

To use the definition provided by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, “Visible intoxication is defined as the level of impairment that any person can detect by noticing the various visible signs of intoxication.”  Legal intoxication, by comparison, simply means having a BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) of 0.08% or higher.  Servers and sellers cannot see legal intoxication.

The Board mentions the following as examples of visible intoxication:

  • “Glassy or bloodshot eyes.”
  • “Loud or slurred speech.”
  • “Lack of coordination or concentration.”
  • “Spilling a drink.”
  • “Staggered walk.”

You can read more about Pennsylvania liquor laws here.

If you or someone you love has been hurt by an intoxicated driver, dram shop liability may be involved.  To schedule a free, confidential case evaluation with an experienced car accident attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.

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