Do you think that businesses that serve alcohol should be liable if one of their customers injures someone
while driving drunk? Dram shop laws establish the liability of liquor stores, taverns, restaurants, and other
businesses that serve alcoholic beverages. A “dram” is a small amount of liquid. Generally, if a business
serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, that business is liable if the person injures someone while drunk.
Serving alcohol to a minor who subsequently causes injury may also result in dram shop liability. Finally, if
a bar serves alcohol to a “habitually intoxicated” person, dram shop liability may apply. The laws vary from
state to state.
Establishing visible intoxication can be challenging. Ideally, the customer will admit to excessive drinking,
but that does not necessarily equate to visible intoxication. Eyewitness testimony can help establish that the
customer was behaving erratically, an indicator of visible intoxication. Police often conduct field sobriety tests
after a crash. This can show that the driver had red and/or watery eyes, alcohol on his or her breath, was unable
to walk steadily, etc. The closer in time these tests are to when the driver was served alcohol, the easier it will be
to prove the driver was visibly intoxicated when served. The blood alcohol reading is another important piece
of the puzzle. An accident reconstruction expert may be able to show that the driver’s speed was extreme. This
is additional proof, albeit indirect (circumstantial), of visible intoxication.
Some criticize these laws based on concern for personal responsibility. They feel that the drunk driver alone
is legally responsible for his her actions. The critically injured plaintiff, though, may wish to pursue a “deep
pocket” (the bar) if the driver’s coverage is inadequate. Bars and restaurants typically have more liability insurance
than individuals. One million dollars is a typical amount. Without this coverage, the bar or restaurant
could be put out of business by a large verdict.
Under joint and several liability laws, the insurer for the business may have to pay the lion’s share of a verdict
if they are proven to be as little as 1% at fault. These laws vary from state. Is this fair? To the business and its
insurer it may not seem so. But it is to the catastrophically injured plaintiff. States that apply a 1% rule consider
it in society’s interest for the injured person to be fully compensated, even if the insurer for a party that was
only minimally responsible has to pay most of the verdict. In most states, including Connecticut, this rule has