What is Dram Shop Law?

Summer holiday weekends, like Memorial Day weekend and Fourth of July weekend, are always popular times for barbecues and other events. Unfortunately, they are also times when more drunk drivers are on the road. For California bars and restaurants, this is usually a great weekend for business, justifying the expense of a full liquor license — sometimes costing upwards of $250,000.00 — plus annual renewals. Aside from exercising good old-fashioned common sense when celebrating, it is important to understand the legal ramifications of serving, providing or consuming liquor, especially in the event of an accident.

Many state dram shop statutes hold restaurants, bars and liquor stores strictly liable for selling alcoholic beverages to an obviously intoxicated person or a minor. Strict liability imputes legal responsibility for damages to persons, even if they were not proven negligent, or those who are otherwise at fault. Recent California legislation has removed most strict liability for businesses serving alcohol to patrons. Now, liquor stores or bars are not even held responsible for damages caused by selling alcohol to obviously intoxicated persons unless they sell liquor to a visibly intoxicated minor.

The recent legislative change reflects the current view that the purposeful intake of alcohol, when mixed with driving — not the serving of alcohol — is often the “proximate cause” of an accident. In other words, the harm resulting from the drinking and driving, not the serving itself, is what is deemed foreseeable. Without the element of proximate cause, a victim cannot establish negligence.

While businesses may not be held civilly liable for serving clearly drunk adult patrons, they still may be subject to criminal charges in certain cases. Now, in California, the liability of servers is closer to that of a “social host,” someone who serves drinks in their home to guests. If one of the guests leaves the host’s house drunk and causes an accident, the host cannot be found civilly liable for damages as long as the guest is of legal drinking age. That said, a social host can still be criminally liable for giving alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person or to a minor with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent or greater.

If a California drunk driver caused your personal injury, contact an experienced lawyer for sound legal guidance as soon as possible.

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