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Dram Shop Liquor Liability Laws

“One for the road” isn’t just an idle expression. For thousands of Pennsylvanians every year, drunk driving becomes a devastating reality. Behind every alcohol-related accident are two irresponsible decisions. Someone decided to drive drunk, and someone else decided to sell them alcohol.

Drunk driving crashes don’t just come out of nowhere. Every beer, every shot, every glass of wine has to be sold to a drinker, before they can bring their dangerous intoxication onto the road. By the same token, a long series of responsibility lies behind every drunk driving accident.

Learn more about dram shop from our team of experienced attorneys at Justice Guardians.

How Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Law Works

Pennsylvania is one of 30 states to recognize this chain of responsibility with a “dram shop law.” Under the state’s Liquor Code, any licensed establishment that sells alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron can be held liable for injuries caused by that patron after they leave the premises. This concept is often called “dram shop liability,” in reference to the small spoonfuls of liquor, called “drams,” often sold by taverns in pre-Revolution America.

According to the state’s civil “statute of limitations,” survivors of a car accident have 2 years to file a dram shop case, beginning on the date of injury.

That’s Pennsylvania’s dram shop law in a nutshell, and it’s come to the aid of numerous accident survivors struggling to regain financial security after suffering severe injuries.

Courts in the state have almost unanimously considered this liability to be “negligence per se.” That means victims probably won’t have to prove the vendor was negligent in any way other than serving alcohol to a visibly-intoxicated patron. The law also extends to cover injuries caused by people under 21, and what the statute archaically terms “habitual drunkards,” “persons of known untempered habits,” and “insane” people – whether or not they were visibly intoxicated.

Falls, Fights & Parties: Dram Shop Liability Not Limited To Car Accidents

Dram shop liability doesn’t just cover car accidents in Pennsylvania. Establishments can also be held responsible for injuries suffered in fights or falls involving visibly intoxicated patrons.

One of Pennsylvania’s oddest interpretations of the dram shop law affords intoxicated patrons the right to recover compensation from licensed establishments. That means drunk drivers can sue the establishment that served them, and use the money to cover their own medical bills or compensate the victim of their negligence. While these cases are very difficult to win (since most people, including juries, feel that people should be held accountable for their own actions), they can still make worthy dram shop lawsuits very complex very quickly, with numerous parties and competing interests.

Technically, selling alcohol isn’t necessary for the dram shop law to kick in. The state’s Liquor Code makes it clear that any vendor who “sells, furnishes or gives” alcohol to a visibly-intoxicated person can be held liable. Without those nuances, a bar could conceivably argue that a drink was a gift from the bartender, who wasn’t acting as an agent of the business at the time.

In some cases, a similar state law allows victims to sue people who negligently served alcohol to minors at social gatherings, even ones held in private homes.

What Does “Visible Intoxication” Look Like?

Pennsylvania’s dram shop law makes it illegal for any licensed establishment to serve alcohol to a minor, someone under the legal drinking age of 21. That’s pretty straightforward: if a minor injures someone due to their intoxication, the establishment can be held liable for those injuries.

Figuring out liability when a drunk driver is over 21 is more problematic, and hinges on whether or not the establishment should have sold alcohol to the driver in the first place. In Pennsylvania, this means a bartender failed to recognize or ignored visible signs of a patron’s intoxication, things like:

  • slurred speech
  • blood-shot eyes
  • stumbling
  • loud, boisterous speech

Eyewitness accounts often become crucial to proving that a visibly intoxicated patron was sold alcohol. Blood tests and the testimony of medical experts can also come in handy after the fact, but note that dram shop cases don’t rely on a blood alcohol content to proceed. In fact, most appellate courts in Pennsylvania have held that “visible intoxication” is the only standard at play. That means how a patron looked, at the time they were served, will be the decisive factor in determining an establishment’s liability.

Medical experts usually testify that a patron with a certain blood alcohol content would have looked a certain way, but that’s considered “circumstantial evidence” and the testimony isn’t likely to clinch a case.

Regardless, most of us know when our friends are a little tipsy. Most of us can recognize, intuitively, when our family members shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Bartenders, servers and liquor store clerks should know those signs even better than regular people. Chances are they do, but even that intimate knowledge of intoxication can’t prevent every accident.

Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice System Doesn’t Make Room For Victims

We all know that drinking alcohol makes it impossible to drive safely. Intoxication clouds a driver’s vision, reduces their ability to react to changing circumstances and impairs judgment to the point at which accidents are all but unavoidable. That’s common knowledge, but drunk drivers continue to harm innocent pedestrians, passengers and other motorists on a regular basis.

Drunk driving is illegal. In Pennsylvania, anyone operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) over 0.08 can be penalized under the state’s criminal code. But for first and even second offenders, those DUI penalties are lenient. First offenders face a fine of $300; for most drinking drivers, that’s a slap on the wrist that won’t have any effect on future behavior. Nor can those criminal penalties hope to compensate the victims of drunk driving for their losses.

Why Accident Survivors Need To Consider A Lawsuit

Car crashes that involve alcohol cause a disproportionate number of serious injuries and deaths. That’s true in Pennsylvania and nation-wide. But no state’s criminal justice system offers a way for the survivors of these accidents to secure ongoing support for their physical and emotional recovery. Instead, victims of drunk driving accidents must turn to civil lawsuits, and the help of experienced personal injury lawyers, to take a stand for their own well-being.

Burdened by medical expenses, and forced to take weeks or months off of work, many survivors choose to file lawsuits against the drunk drivers who caused them injury. As we’ve seen, compensation may also be available from any licensed establishment who sold the driver alcohol.

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David Petrone
Date Published: July 20, 2022
David Petrone is a personal injury attorney at Justice Guardians.
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