Dram Shop Act

In the U.S., the term dram shop refers to bars, taverns, and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages. A Dram Shop Act holds such businesses liable if they serve liquor to a person who is obviously intoxicated, or to a minor, who then causes injuries to another person. To explore this concept, consider the Dram Shop Act definition.

Definition of Dram Shop Act


  1. The body of laws governing bars, taverns, liquor stores, and other establishments selling alcoholic beverages, liable for serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or a minor.

What is a Dram Shop

A dram is a unit of either mass or volume in the apothecaries’ system of measurement. The term dram shop was coined to describe any place where spirits were sold to the customers by the dram, which is equal to 1/8 of a fluid ounce. Laws regarding dram shops date back to the early 19th century, having the goal of protecting the public from hazards caused by intoxicated people.

What is the Dram Shop Act

The Dram Shop Act actually refers to the laws of each state which govern civil liability when damages, injuries, or deaths are caused by visibly intoxicated individuals who were served alcoholic drinks in a bar, tavern, or other establishment. While these laws vary slightly by state, they generally allow victims to sue the establishment, which had a duty to stop serving alcohol to the drunk patron.

For example:

John goes out drinking with his friends, at the corner bar. The friendly waitress happily served them drinks long after they became falling-down drunk, until they left the bar at nearly 2 a.m. John, who got in his car to drive home, hit a pedestrian, causing critical injuries. John is arrested and charge with driving under the influence.

The victim has the right to file a civil lawsuit against John for his injuries. In addition, however, the victim may be able to sue the bar, if he can prove that the staff continued to serve him after he became visibly intoxicated.

As of 2015, the following states lack dram shop liability laws:

  • Delaware
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia

There are certain facts that are likely to lead a court to conclude that the establishment has been negligent, and is liable for injuries caused by a patron. 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

First and Third Party Dram Shop Cases

There are two main types of dram shop cases. A first party dram shop case is one in which the person injured is the individual who was sold alcoholic beverages by the establishment, and suffered some type of injury as a result of his intoxication. Most states do not allow first party dram shop cases. The exception to this is the selling or serving of alcohol to minors.

A third party dram shop case is one in which a third party is injured by an intoxicated person after an establishment served or sold him alcohol when he was obviously drunk. This is the most common dram shop case brought in civil courts across the U.S.

Proving a Dram Shop Case

Proving that an establishment is liable in a dram shop case hinges on proving that the bartender, server, or sales clerk knew, or should have known, that the individual was drunk. This is often done by presenting some proof or testimony that the establishment:

  • served alcohol to someone without requiring proof of age
  • served alcohol to someone to appeared to be intoxicated
  • served alcohol to someone who would likely become intoxicated as a result of the amount of liquor served to that person

Defense to Dram Shop Lawsuit

Alcohol-serving establishments can do certain things to help ensure they are not held liable in the event someone sues them for damages caused by one of their patrons. These often include:

  • sending bartenders and servers to an approved server education course
  • encouraging customers to refrain from becoming intoxicated
  • promoting the availability of nonalcoholic beverages
  • promoting the election of a “designated driver”
  • encouraging patrons to take a taxi home if they become intoxicated

Bar Held Liable in Crash that Seriously Injured Two, and Killed Unborn Baby

In October, 2010 Matt and Meredith Eastridge were pulling away from the ATM when their car was struck by a drunk driver going in excess of 100 mph. Matt and Meredith were both seriously injured, and the couple’s unborn baby was killed in the accident. The driver, David Huffman, had just left a local bar, where he had been served at least 10 drinks in a two-hour time period. Huffman’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit at the time of the accident.

Although the bar claimed they had never been cited for alcohol-related infractions, and that they are very careful about not serving alcohol to minors, or to patrons who were visibly intoxicated, the jury thought differently. The jury awarded the couple $1.7 million, on the basis that, even if Huffman did not physically appear to be drunk, they should have known that serving that amount of alcohol to a single person in so short a time period would result in intoxication.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Intoxicated – A state in which an individual’s normal ability to act or make reasonable decisions is inhibited by drugs or alcohol.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
  • Negligent – Failure to act as or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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