Dram Shop and Liquor Liability

Drunk driving claims more than 10,000 lives a year — more than one tragic death per hour — across the U.S. As hard as it is to believe, these numbers signify an improvement of more than 50 percent over where they stood three decades ago, when the country began to make sweeping reforms to its alcohol laws.

Part of this heightened enforcement is a strategy of mutual accountability. After a night of partying and drinking with friends, it is the responsibility of the person who will be driving to make sure they are not intoxicated before getting behind the wheel. However, according to Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Law, alcohol-serving establishments such as bars, restaurants and clubs may also share this responsibility. Anyone licensed to serve alcohol is legally required to ensure they are not putting their customers and their community in danger by serving people after they are already obviously intoxicated.

This is why responsible establishments require their alcohol servers to take food and beverage safety training programs like ServSafe. When an establishment’s disregard of this duty results in tragedy, lawyers skilled in liquor liability like McEldrew Young Purtell can help you make a case.

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What Is Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Law?

According to Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop law, any business or licensed individual who gives alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person can legally be held responsible for any injuries and damages that person might cause. The term “dram shop” comes from England, where liquor was once sold by the spoonful, also known as “dram.” Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop law applies not only to businesses that serve alcohol, like bars and restaurants, but to servers and organizers of private events too.

Sellers of alcoholic products often encourage people to “drink responsibly,” but that responsibility is shared by the servers of those drinks as well. If an injury or death results from a drinker being overserved, those responsible for pouring it may be held at least partially liable.

How Much Is Too Much?

When Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, states set the age floor on alcohol to 21. In the late ‘90s, the federal government persuaded outlying states to set their legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit at .08 percent, where it now stands for all 50 states.

How much is .08? Breathalyzer maker BACTrack conducted a real-world experiment on three people: Bill, who weighs 215 pounds; Raymond, who weighs 175 pounds; and Suzie, who weighs 150 pounds. Over the course of 90 minutes, each of them consumed the same exact thing: 2 slices of pizza, 1 pint of beer (4.2 percent alcohol) and 2 glasses of Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol).

After waiting 15 minutes, Bill’s BAC stood at .047, Raymond measured .064, and Susie came in at an above-limit .097. In many drinking establishments, this amount of drinking would be seen as responsible, even though a member of the party was over the legal driving limit by the end of the night. This is a big reason why a culture of designated drivers is important to promote. 

What Does Too Much Alcohol Do?

Alcohol slows down a person’s reflexes, making it harder to react in time and avoid being involved in a collision. The limit in a bar is “obvious intoxication” or “visibly intoxicated.” 

Drinking establishments are not allowed to serve anyone more alcohol if that person is “obviously intoxicated,” but what does that mean? Even though everyone’s body processes alcohol differently, many signs of intoxication are clear and easy to spot, including:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Difficulty finishing thoughts/sentences
  • Glassy eyes
  • Impaired fine-motor skills
  • Impaired judgment
  • Incoherent speech
  • Noticeable changes in behavior
  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling or falling

When Will an Establishment Be Held Responsible?

Although liquor liability is often hard to prove, there are some cases that will incline a court to find that an establishment has been negligent. These include situations in which the establishment served or sold alcohol to:

  • A person without asking for proof of age
  • An intoxicated person
  • A person after closing time

In cases of private hosting, the host is usually only accorded blame when they are responsible for procuring alcohol or serving it to a minor. Pennsylvania is a “zero tolerance” state, where any BAC level above .02 under the age of 21 is enough to warrant a DUI (the small allowance is made for certain medications that may contain alcohol).

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When to Consult an Experienced Liability Lawyer

If you have been injured because of another person’s negligence, you have rights that entitle you to financial compensation for your injuries. With 30 years of experience in liabilty law, McEldrew Young Purtell is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine the next steps toward justice. To schedule a meeting for a free consultation, fill out our form or call us directly at (866) 971-0019.