Drunk Driving: When a Bar or Restaurant Becomes Liable

All states have initiated some sort of liability laws that may be applied when customers of establishments that serve alcohol are involved in accidents resulting in injuries or cause injury directly to another individual. Known as “dram shop” laws, they extend liability for the injuries to the restaurant or bar in certain instances when case facts allow the establishment to be included as a co-defendant. Very often, illegal activity is a component of the claim, whether it is over-intoxication of the customer causing the injury, or the bar serving alcohol to a patron who is already intoxicated or under the legal age limit to consume alcohol. This can be a very important part of a personal injury lawsuit, because restaurants and bars often have considerably more liability insurance coverage than the typical patron. Your personal injury attorney can use this third-party relationship to greatly enhance the value of your injury claim. However, there are very specific legal rules that apply when a restaurant or bar is also being pursued for damages.

Conditions Establishing Restaurant or Bar Liability

Liability in a lawsuit always revolves around potential negligence by any respondent party. However, for restaurants and bars to be liable for injuries caused by their customers, some level of recklessness is required as evidence that proves such behavior. It is the responsibility of the personal injury legal counselor for the injured party to prove that the establishment acted recklessly, resulting in the indirect causation of the injury. One condition is when the establishment continues to serve alcohol to a patron who is obviously already drunk. The business must also show a significant disregard for the potential actions of the customer, such as knowledge that they will drive away from the business intoxicated. Mere assumption that a patron may drive drunk is not enough recklessness, which narrows the application of most dram shop liability laws. In addition, when the bar serves a customer who is known to be underage, they may also be held liable for first party injuries, as this is actually illegal behavior. In some states, only a minor may file suit against an establishment when they serve them alcohol and are subsequently injured.

Potential Damages

Compensatory damages are normally the initial damages that are pursued in dram shop cases, which include medical bills associated with the injury, lost wages as a result of the injury, and non-economic pain and suffering stemming from the accident. When an auto accident is involved and caused by an intoxicated patron who drove away drunk, both parties may be sued to the extent of the law. This includes taking the case to a full jury trial in hopes of winning a punitive damage award against all negligent respondent parties. Punitive damages are limited in some states, and judges have the authority to reduce damage awards from juries, but many times, whatever the jury finds is exactly what results from the trial. This can enhance the value of personal injury claim exponentially, as many restaurants and bars are owned by multi-million dollar corporations.

It is important to understand that dram shop lawsuits are commonly defended vigorously, especially by large establishments that can afford a strong defense team. It may be vital to have an experienced car accident attorney Des Moines IA trusts who understands how to successfully build a case for potential damages. These cases can be won, but they can also be very difficult and frustrating. The attorney you choose can matter greatly.


JMThanks to our friends and contributors from Johnston Martineau, PLLP for their insight into personal injury practice.

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