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Dram Shop Laws: Should They Apply in All States?

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Last week, Major League Soccer player Charlie Davies filed a $20 million lawsuit against the owners of a Washington, D.C. nightclub and the Red Bull company alleging that they are responsible for a fatal car crash in 2009 that ended his hopes of playing in the 2010 World Cup. The case alleges that the nightclub and the company served excessive alcohol to the driver of the car that caused the accident, and in which Davies was a passenger. The attorney that is handling the case has been quoted as stating a bar restaurant or other establishment has a duty to stop serving a patron alcohol once they believe that person to be visibly intoxicated. While this concept may be familiar to many attorneys, the general public may not be familiar with this type of law.

Setting aside for a minute that issue of whether Davies should have gotten in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver (one of the positions that the night club has taken), this lawsuit raises questions about whether establishments that serve alcohol should be liable for the actions of their intoxicated patrons. Laws that allow these types of lawsuits are called dram shop laws, and they essentially create liabilities for establishments that serve alcohol to obviously intoxicated persons. Different states take different approaches to whether such lawsuits are allowed. Virginia is one of the few states that do not have dram shop laws, but perhaps it should.

One reason is that Dram Shop laws are effective at reducing the incidence of drunk driving accidents. Despite significant enforcement and prevention efforts over the last several decades, drunk-driving continues to be a major safety issue in this country. Every day, nearly 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. Many of these accidents are preventable and new data shows that dram shop laws make a difference. A study carried out by the Community Preventive Service Task Force, an independent body of public health and prevention experts, found that areas with dram shop liability laws had 6.4 percent fewer alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths than comparable areas. Every single state that has dram shop laws had a reduced number of alcohol-related accidents and in some areas, the reduction was as much as 11 percent. Ultimately, the study concluded that dram shop laws are an effective intervention for reducing alcohol-related harms.

It makes sense that putting the brakes on the serving of alcohol to intoxicated persons would reduce drunk driving accidents. Holding establishments liable will encourage them to serve alcohol more responsibly. But even aside from the policy effectiveness of dram shop laws, it also just makes sense to hold alcohol serving establishments responsible for their negligent actions. Legally speaking, liability for negligence means that a defendant should be held liable for all the consequences that naturally flow from their negligent actions. When a person is visibly intoxicated and the bar keeps serving them alcohol, it is of course foreseeable that the person could cause an accident. It only makes sense that the bar or other establishment should be at least partly responsible.

In the absence of dram shop liability, too many victims of drunk driving accidents are left without sufficient legal recourse. It’s time for Virginia to take a step forward and join the other states that hold owners responsible for the way they serve their patrons.

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.