Houman Fakhimi

Dram Shop Liability

It is illegal in California to drive while impaired or with a blood-alcohol concentration that exceeds 0.08. And yet, according to recent analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk driving accidents account for 29 percent of the 3,000 traffic fatalities in this state.

Due to the scope of the problem, California is one of 38 states to institute a “dram shop law” that may in some cases result in civil liability of bars, restaurants, hotels, clubs or other businesses when a patron drinks too much and injures someone else on the road.

However, these laws were significantly tightened in California in 2012. In order to succeed in a dram shop liability case, victims should seek legal counsel from experienced DUI injury lawyers. At Fakhimi & Associates, Trial Attorneys, we are familiar with these statutes and have a history of proven success.

What is a Dram Shop Law?

A dram shop law is a law that allows any business establishment responsible for selling alcohol to someone who in turn gets in a vehicle, drives negligently and injures another person.

The spirit of the law is to bolster responsibility of those who profit by selling alcohol. Big profits should come with big responsibility. It dates back to old English law, and the term “dram” refers to a unit of measurement for serving alcohol in Britain.

While many states have dram shop laws, their scope varies widely. For example, some states allow bars or other establishments to be liable for serving alcohol to anyone who is visibly intoxicated. Other states only extend liability when alcohol is served or sold to minors. Still others allow liability only when the establishment serves alcohol to someone who is known to be habitually addicted to alcohol.

Typically in these cases, a plaintiff may win a civil case against both the intoxicated driver and the alcohol vendor, and then compensatory damages are then divided by the defendants. In some cases, plaintiffs may seek punitive damages against the driver.

Per 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(9), judgments against drunk drivers for injuries they cause may not be discharged in bankruptcy, like some other personal injury judgments.

California’s Dram Shop Law

California used to have a fairly liberal dram shop law. It allowed persons injured by a drunk driver to seek recompense from bars that sold alcohol to either a visibly impaired person or minor who went on to injure one or more others by driving drunk.

That has changed.

California Civil Code Section 1714, Responsibility for Willful and Negligent Acts, legislators significantly tightened the law by removing the strict liability element. The legislature in 2012 took the position that it is the person drinking the alcohol – not the business – that is the proximate cause of injuries resulting from a drunk driving accident.

Still, there is one exception to this rule: Intoxicated minors.

If a business in California sells alcohol to a minor who is already visibly impaired, that business may be held liable for damages that driver causes in a DUI crash. In California, minors are not allowed to drink under virtually any circumstance, even if they are at home with their parents.

So for example:

  • Let’s say Linda, who is 25, walks into a Buddy’s Bar, slurring her words, stumbling and clearly under the influence of alcohol. A bartender at Buddy’s serves her alcohol anyway. She leaves an hour later in her car, cross the median and causes a collision, injuring James, another driver. James could likely successfully sue Linda and her insurance company for damages. However, he would not be able to sue Buddy’s.
  • Now, let’s say in that very same scenario, Linda is 19-years-old instead of 25. In that situation, James could sue Linda, her insurance company and Buddy’s.
California Social Host Liability Law

State law does not extend civil liability to individual hosts who serve alcohol to impaired guests. But here again, the one exception is minors.

So if parents host a party full of teenagers and serve alcohol to them to the point one becomes intoxicated, leaves in a vehicle and causes an accident, those parents could be held liable for damages.

City-Level Dram Shop Liability

While state lawmakers have drastically curtailed third-party liability for drunk drivers, there are a number of cities and towns that have enacted their own ordinances that establish additional liability for the service of alcohol to any minor – drunk or not.

It’s important to research whether the city where the accident occurred may have its own local statutes before determining the best legal strategy.

Criminal Liability for Alcohol Service

The criminal statutes are a bit broader when it comes to holding accountable businesses that serve alcohol.

Specifically, California Business and Professions Code section 25062(a) allows prosecutors to charge anyone who sells, furnishes or gives alcohol to a person who is either visibly intoxicated or a habitual drunkard may be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

That could result in fines and other penalties, and it may in some cases result in an order of restitution. That’s up to the discretion of the judge. However, those orders rarely cover all costs incurred by victims of drunk driving.

Contact the injury lawyers at Fakhimi & Associates, Trial Attorneys, by calling (714) 705-6701 or (909) 859-0280. Serving the Southern California counties of Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside.