Dram Shop Laws: Holding Bars Responsible

by | May 18, 2017

Anyone who is hurt by someone else’s negligence has a right to compensation for their injuries. This is especially true of people hurt by drunk drivers, and other wrongdoers who act while under the influence of alcohol. Reasonable people know that alcohol significantly increases the risk of injuring other people, and therefore there should be strict accountability for misusing alcohol.

Reasonable people also know that serving an excessive amount of alcohol to someone can ultimately cause that person to then negligently injure someone else — such as by drunk driving and other alcohol-related accidents (e.g., stumbling into another person and causing them to fall). For that reason, some states hold that when a person is injured by a wrongdoer who was intoxicated, the victim can sue the business that irresponsibly served alcohol to the wrongdoer and set the events in motion. Laws permitting such lawsuits against restaurants, bars, and similar establishments are called “dram shop laws.”

Here are how these laws work in DC, Maryland, and Virginia:

  • DC – The District of Columbia has enacted a law that bans the sale of alcohol to persons who are visibly intoxicated, and (like all other states) to any person under the age of 21. While this law is not explicitly a dram shop law, D.C.’s high court (the D.C. Court of Appeals) has nonetheless interpreted the law to mean that if a business serves alcohol to a person in violation of the law, and the person then harms someone else because he or she was intoxicated, then the business acted negligently and is legally responsible for the injury and can be sued for compensation.
  • Maryland – Maryland is more restrictive. Like D.C., Maryland has no explicit dram shop laws but bans the sale of alcohol to intoxicated persons and anyone under the age of 21. However, unlike D.C., Maryland’s high court (the Maryland Court of Appeals) has split the difference; a business can be held legally responsible for serving alcohol to a person under 21 who then injures someone, a decision that the Court of Appeals reached just last year. However, a business cannot be sued for the act of serving alcohol to someone who is already intoxicated, as the Court of Appeals has ruled three separate times in the last century, most recently in 2014.
  • Virginia – Virginia is the most restrictive of all. There is no dram shop law, and the Virginia Supreme Court has held that a business simply cannot be sued for serving alcohol to a drunk driver or anyone else who causes injury due to intoxication.

Of course, even if a victim cannot sue the business that serves alcohol to a wrongdoer who causes injury, the wrongdoer can always be sued. In fact, some states allow special penalties (called “punitive damages”) to be assessed against a drunk wrongdoer in a lawsuit, meaning that the victim may be entitled to an extra monetary award. Punitive damages are sometimes allowed in Virginia for negligent conduct by an intoxicated person, and are likely allowed in D.C. (although this question has not been settled by the D.C. Court of Appeals). Unfortunately, punitive damages for drunken misconduct are not allowed in Maryland.

In every case our legal team handles at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., we work to thoroughly investigate the unique facts surrounding an accident and determine all potential sources of compensation. This includes investigating whether intoxicated drivers or other at-fault parties were negligently served alcohol prior to an accident. This enables our clients to maximize their recovery for all of their damages, including their physical and emotional injuries, and their financial expenses associated with medical bills, property damage, lost income, and more.

If you have questions regarding a drunk driving accident or any injury resulting from an alcohol-related incident, our legal team is prepared to use our decades of combined experience in evaluating the merits of your claim, and will work aggressively to obtain compensation on your behalf. For a FREE consultation with a Washington, DC car accident lawyer, contact us today.

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