Can a Bar Owner Be Held Liable in a DUI?
By Frank C. Sluzis, ESQ.
We are fully in the holiday season. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, there are parties and gatherings for family, friends, and work colleagues. These festivities often include alcohol. Bars are also filled with holiday shoppers and other revelers, celebrating the season with beer, wine, and spirits.
With more people raising a glass, more DUIs are bound to follow. When someone drinks too much and drives their vehicle, they are most certainly responsible for their actions. But if they’ve been celebrating at a bar or restaurant, could the establishment or the person who served them also be responsible if the drunk driver causes an accident?
Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop law could hold anyone holding a liquor license responsible for DUI accidents if they served the driver alcohol when they were visibly intoxicated.
Dram Shop Laws in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Liquor Code prohibits anyone with a liquor license from providing any alcohol to someone who is visibly intoxicated or to any minor.
Potential penalties for Liquor Code violations include the following:
- Administrative Consequences
- Criminal Penalties
- Civil Liability
For penalties to be imposed against the bar owner, the guest or patron does need to be visibly drunk. The exception to this rule is when a minor is involved. Minors do not have to be obviously intoxicated to land the bar in hot water.
Administrative Consequences of Serving Drunk Patrons
If a bar or restaurant or other establishment serves alcohol to an obviously drunk person or to a minor, they can have their liquor license suspended or revoked. They can also be required to pay an administrative fine.
Criminal Penalties for Serving Intoxicated Customers
The Pennsylvania Crimes Code also allows for criminal penalties against licensees or their agents (bartenders). Bar owners and servers can be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor. While this might sound minor, it will be a mark on your criminal record. Penalties can include fines up to $5,000. Perhaps most concerning is the possibility of up to one year in jail.
Civil Liability in Dram Shop Cases
In civil liability, a person injured in an accident caused by a drunk person can potentially sue the bar owner for any injuries and damages. They can sue to recover money for medical bills, missed work, and pain and suffering. In addition to economic and non-economic damages, punitive damages are also recoverable in dram shop actions.
An individual or business can be sued in several situations:
- A person is injured in a fight started by someone who was visibly intoxicated but still served
- A person injured in an accident caused by a driver who was served while visibly intoxicated
- The drunk person can also sue for their injuries
Personal injury lawsuits must be filed within two years of the date the injury occurred. This time limitation includes wrongful death claims.
Private Events Can Be Held Accountable
Consequences aren’t only for bar and restaurant owners and their employees. Private events also fall under Dram Shop law. Hired caterers can be held responsible. State law allows third-party claims against individuals (social hosts) only if they knowingly provide alcohol to minors. Social hosts can’t be held liable if the guest is of legal drinking age, even if the guest is clearly drunk.
Proving Causation in Dram Shop Cases Can Be Challenging
When someone drinks too much and causes an accident, blaming the bar that served them can be difficult. Proving that a patron was visibly intoxicated when they were served is not a straightforward task. Also, the service at the bar or the party and the injury or accident must be directly linked. If the accident happened many hours after they were at the bar, for example, proving negligence on the part of the bar would be an uphill battle.
Experienced Counsel for Liquor License Cases
At Scaringi Law, we are fiercely dedicated to representing our clients in criminal and civil matters. Our experience and resources enable us to handle complex legal problems. We utilize an integrated approach, leaning on our team of attorneys to provide thorough and strategic legal guidance.
Scaringi Law is a comprehensive law firm that can help with different alcohol-related cases:
- Defending DUI clients with and without accidents/injuries
- Representing clients in personal injury lawsuits when they are injured by a drunk driver
- Defending bar owners and others against charges of improperly serving a customer