What Is a Dram Shop Lawsuit?
Drunk driving accidents lead to many deaths and serious injuries each year in Colorado. The extent of medical bills and overall economic and non-economic damages can be rather large, and auto insurance policies often do not cover the extent of damages in these types of personal injury and wrongful death cases. To obtain the compensation that meets some level of fairness, you need to make sure you sue all potential defendants. In many cases, that could include the bar, the restaurant, the wine store, or even the fun couple down the street hosting a party. States with dram shop laws allow these types of defendants, but the laws can be strict and limited.
Types of Dram Shop Laws
The term “dram shop” is a holdover from when alcohol was sold by the dram, which by modern-day standards is less than a teaspoon. Dram shop laws are laws that impose civil liability on a seller of alcoholic beverages when the person they sold alcohol to commits harmful, negligent acts. Not all states have dram shop laws, and among those that do, there are different types.
Laws Involving Minors
Many dram shop laws are geared towards situations where the person who is served the alcohol is under the age of 21. In particular, when the seller knew or should have known, that the person being served or sold the alcohol is under the age of 21, laws in those states hold the establishment liable for the resulting injuries caused by the underage, intoxicated party.
Social Host Liability Laws
In some states, “dram shop laws” and “social host liability laws” are used interchangeably. Generally speaking in those states, social host liability laws hold sellers responsible for injuries caused by intoxicated persons to whom they sold or provided alcohol when it was clear these intoxicated persons were indeed intoxicated and should not consume more alcohol.
In other states, social hosts are generally people that throw a party and serve alcohol, and they are treated differently from vendors who sell alcohol. In most of these states, a social host can be held liable for serving alcohol to a minor but not for serving alcohol to an intoxicated adult.
Habitual Drinker Laws
In some states that have dram shop laws, one of the ways an establishment can be held liable is when they serve a person known to them as someone that abuses alcohol.
Dram Shop Liability for Injuries in Colorado
Dram shop liability depends on each state's law on the same, if the state even has a law. It also depends on who the victim is. In first-party dram shop laws, the victim who files the claim is the person who was actually served the alcohol and caused an accident in which they were injured. Then there are third-party dram shop laws, which are typically what we think of when we consider dram shop laws, and in these laws, the victim who files the claim is the one who is injured by the intoxicated person. Knowing which applies in your state, if any, is important so that you can better strategize your claim and obtain maximum compensation.
First-Party Dram Shop Laws
First-party dram shop laws apply to cases where the plaintiff is the person that was served the alcohol. Typically, although it depends on the state, these are people under the age of 21, and after leaving the establishment that served them the alcohol, they suffer an injury due to their over-consumption. First-party dram shop liability tends to be difficult to prove. A jury tends not to side with the party they hold accountable directly for the accident – in this case, the intoxicated minor. A jury tends to find against these claims because they believe the “victim” should be held responsible for their own actions.
Third-Party Dram Shop Laws
When a party that has been injured by an intoxicated person sues the establishment that served the intoxicated person the alcohol, third-party dram shop laws apply. For example, if we use the same example from above, but instead of hitting a tree the intoxicated 20-year-old driver hit another vehicle head-on, seriously injuring the occupants, then the third-party occupants may sue the bar. To be clear, under these laws, the 20-year-old intoxicated driver cannot sue the bar for damages if they were also injured.
Third-party dram shop liability tends to be less difficult to prove, but the claimant will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the establishment is at fault. In most jurisdictions with these types of laws, the claimant usually must show that the intoxicated driver was visibly intoxicated when over-served alcohol by the establishment or, if the intoxicated person was a minor, show that the establishment had reason to know the person served alcohol was under the age of 21 years.
Issues Arising out of Dram Shop Injury Cases in Colorado
There are various issues that can arise out of dram shop injury cases. Although it depends on the state, some of the more common issues are described below.
While proving that an underage person was served alcohol is not a difficult task, in cases where the person is over the age of 21, proving that they were “visibly intoxicated” can be burdensome. Often, a toxicologist will be retained by the plaintiff to prove that the drunk party was clearly, and visibly intoxicated.
Places Where Alcohol Was Consumed
Another issue for a person seeking restitution under the dram shop laws is proving that the vendor was the only entity or person that served the person in question alcohol. In other words, was the vendor the only establishment where the intoxicated person consumed alcohol, or was it just one of many?
Cause of Accident
Proving that a person involved in an accident was incorrectly served, or over-served, alcohol is not enough to recover compensation from the vendor. In addition, it still needs to be established that the intoxicated person actually caused the accident.
Evidence in Dram Shop Liability Cases in Colorado
Recovering damages under dram shop laws is often multi-faceted. Further, as the above issues indicate, proving liability can be challenging. You have a burden to prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence. That evidence can include:
- Expert testimony, like toxicologists
- Witness testimony, like statements of any witnesses present when the intoxicated person was at the bar, bought the alcohol, etc.
- Receipts or credit card statements, that indicate the amount of alcohol that was served and at what times it was served
- Photographs or videos that can be recovered showing how much alcohol the person was served, as well as the condition they were in when they arrived at the establishment and when they left the establishment
According to the facts of the case and the jurisdiction, additional evidence may be needed.
Remedies for Dram Shop Injuries in Colorado
Like all personal injury cases, dram shop law allows plaintiffs to seek damages from restaurants, bars, and other liquor establishments. Such damages could include:
- Economic damages, like medical bills and lost wages
- Non-economic damages, like pain and suffering
- Punitive damages, if applicable, to punish and deter