Yes. Bars, restaurants and other establishments licensed to sell and / or serve alcohol can be held liable for doing so illegally in civil lawsuits. The laws in question, collectively known as “dram shop laws,” vary by state – sometimes significantly. But usually, a law will make it illegal for a licensed establishment to “furnish” a visibly intoxicated patron with alcohol. If that person goes on to hurt someone else – in a car accident, a fight or through sheer clumsiness – the injured party has every right to demand compensation from the establishment.

Learn more about dram shop laws from our experienced drunk driving lawyers.

Civil Laws On Selling Alcohol

Dram shop laws also cover injuries caused by minors who were served alcohol by licensed establishments, since people under 21 aren’t allowed to drink alcohol at all (with only minimal exceptions in some states, often for religious purposes).

Most state laws also make it clear that, in the event of an innocent person’s death, the right to file a civil lawsuit is transferred to the executor of that person’s estate, or a close relative who was financially-dependent on the deceased.

Dram Shop Laws Are Established At What Level?

Dram shop laws are established at the state level, and every state’s law will differ in its specific language. You can find a full guide to every state’s dram shop law at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But over the years, state legislatures have converged on a set of basic principles, and most dram shop laws now attempt to uphold those same principles.

Licensed establishments need to be vigilant about who they serve alcohol to, and having dram shop laws that open those establishments to civil liability is one way to enforce that vigilance. But we can’t expect bars and restaurants to be equipped with the same resources as the police, nor would we want them to be.

Creating laws, at least in the United States, is usually a matter of balancing personal liberties with broader social goods. That’s why dram shop laws don’t use the same legal definition of “intoxication” as criminal laws. Cops can use breathalyzers, and blood or urine tests, to determine whether or not drivers are under or over a legal blood alcohol content. We wouldn’t want bartenders, on the other hand, whipping out a breathalyzer every time we ordered a drink.

Balancing Responsibilities

That’s the common logic behind dram shop laws, at least: we expect patrons themselves to monitor their own level of intoxication, and know when to stop drinking.

People, in a fundamental sense, should be responsible for their own actions. The problem here is that drinking alcohol lowers your inhibitions, making it harder, in a very literal sense, to make smart decisions about drinking more. Thus liability should be split, state legislatures agree, between a patron and the licensed establishment in which they’re drinking.

“Visible intoxication” is the standard that every state has fixed on for its dram shop law. Instead of a blood alcohol content, which obviously can’t be seen by the naked eye, bartenders, servers at restaurants and clerks at liquor stores are required to watch for outward manifestations of drunkenness, like slurred speech, bleary eyes and boisterous behavior. When they spot those signs, it’s their legal duty to say “enough is enough” and refuse the intoxicated patron another drink.

Can We “Guide” Personal Responsibility?

Some bars are going a little further than watching for “visible intoxication,” installing breathalyzers so patrons can check their blood alcohol content (BAC) before getting behind the wheel. Of course, it’s not required – and it costs money. Insert a small fee (usually $1) into the machine, and out pops a sanitized straw. Blow into the straw and the machine will calculate your BAC.

To our knowledge, Utah is the only state to put this idea into practice so far. Signed into law on March 31, 2014, Utah House Bill 190 tries to motivate bars in the state to install breathalyzers, by reducing their share of civil liability for accidents involving drivers who subsequently fail breathalyzer tests. It doesn’t require patrons to use the machine, but by giving them the option to do so, hopes that more people will actively monitor their level of intoxication.

One problem with this strategy could be accuracy. None of the breathalyzers being installed in bars are the same as those used by law enforcement, and manufacturers, like Bob Brazel, who just installed over 100 of his breathalyzers in Washington State watering holes, are quick to admit that their machines aren’t as accurate.

BAC, for that matter, isn’t always the best indicator of impairment. It’s strength is that it can be measured objectively; that’s what makes it an appropriate yardstick for legal matters. But two people can be affected by the same amount of alcohol, the same number of drinks, in very different ways.