“Dram Shop” Claims—Can I Get Sued for Serving Alcoholic Beverages?

By December 11, 2014Civil - General

By Jacob F. Kimball
Managing Attorney
The Gasper Law Group, PLLC

With the holiday season comes social drinking. Work parties often include consumption of alcohol, as do gatherings of families and friends. Unfortunately, irresponsible drinkers can cause serious injury and death if they choose to drink and drive. Many wonder, If I serve my guests alcohol and then they drive drunk and injure someone, can I get sued? Others wonder if a bar or tavern serves alcohol to a person, and that person causes an auto accident, can the victim sue the bar or tavern?

According to Colorado law, “social hosts” are not civilly liable to injured persons (or their estates), or for damage to property, caused by the intoxication of any of their guests unless one of the following applies:

1. The social host knowingly served an alcoholic beverage to such person who was under the age of 21 years; or

2. The social host knowingly provided the person under the age of 21 a place to consume an alcoholic beverage.

In addition, it is important to note that the statute of limitations for such a claim is relatively short—just one year—and is measured from the time the alcohol is provided, not from the time it is actually consumed or from when the cause of the damages arising from its consumption are discovered. Furthermore, neither the person who actually consumed the alcohol nor his or her estate, guardians, or dependents can sue the social host.

While you might not consider your mandatory work party a social event, the law will likely consider your employer to be a “social host,” making it tough to sue an employer unless the employer served alcohol to an under-aged drinker. If an employer that is not in the business of selling alcoholic beverages serves alcohol at a social event, it will probably be treated as a “social host” under the civil law. In one Colorado case, an employer maintained a break room on its property where it kept a keg of beer, a television, and a pool table. Employees were welcome to use the room for social gatherings after work. One day after work, an employee used the room and consumed beer with his co-workers, then left in his own vehicle. The employee then collided with another vehicle, killing one person and injuring another. The court explained that, because the employer was not in the business of providing or selling alcohol, was not licensed to sell alcohol, and the employee did not purchase or pay for the alcohol, the employer is properly treated as a “social host” under the statute, and as such, could not be held liable because the incident had nothing to do with anyone under age 21 consuming alcohol. Thus, in Colorado, an employer who is not in the business of selling alcohol will likely be considered a “social host” under the statute even if it provides the alcohol on its own property to its own employees.

Bars and taverns are held to a slightly higher standard than that to which social hosts are held. Typically, bars and taverns are not liable when an intoxicated person causes injuries to other unless they “willfully and knowingly” sold or served alcohol to such a person who is under age 21 or who is “visibly intoxicated.” Thus, there is no civil liability for a social host who serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, but there is for a bar or tavern that does the same.

Thus, one of the most important issues in dram shop claims is whether the server or provider “willfully and knowingly” served alcohol to someone under age 21. This issue is further complicated by fake IDs and social hosts’ control over the age of their guests consuming alcohol. In practice, the law essentially protects bars and social hosts who serve alcohol to minors who provide fake or false IDs or who make no effort to observe the sobriety of the alcohol drinker. For example, in the Colorado case of Dickman v. Jackalope, Inc., a passenger who was injured in a collision while riding in an automobile driven by a minor who had been served alcoholic beverages sued the bar that had served the alcohol, arguing that the bar, which never checked the drunk-driver for ID, should be liable for the passenger’s injuries. The court disagreed, interpreting the statute to mean that the bar had to know the person was at least 21 and serve the person anyway. Thus, a bar, tavern, or social host who serves a minor alcohol without checking that person’s ID may not be liable for injuries that person causes while drunk. In another example, a mother who provided a house for her teenage daughter to host a party at which the mother knew alcohol would be consumed, and may have even helped collect money for beer, did not “willfully and knowingly serve” alcohol to minors.

Of course, these examples should NOT be construed to mean it is okay—morally or legally—to neglect to check the ID of the person you are serving alcohol, or that there are no legal consequences for doing so; instead, this article is limited to whether doing so would create civil liability (i.e., open oneself to a civil lawsuit).

We hope you have a fun and safe holiday season and that you can avoid any of the tragic alcohol-related injuries or deaths that too often occur at this otherwise wonderful time of year. However, if you or someone you know is harmed or killed because of alcohol, the experienced attorneys at The Gasper Law Group can help you get the compensation you deserve.