Could a Bar or Liquor Store Be Liable in a Drunk Driving Accident?

When a loved one is seriously hurt or killed in an accident with a drunk driver, it can be a devastating moment that carries long-term consequences. Heartbreak and frustration can fuel a desire to seek justice and recover all damages. 

shelves of bottles in a liquor store

In some cases, the actions of a business that sells alcohol may be so egregious that they can be considered a contributor to the accident’s cause. These cases are rare, but they exist as a way to hold establishments accountable and discourage them from serving someone who is underage, visibly intoxicated, or who otherwise has no right to drink in public.

Lawsuits against bars, restaurants, clubs, and certain retail alcohol establishments all fall under the umbrella of “dram laws”. Hiring a Tampa car accident lawyer can help you explore your options for holding everyone accountable — and hopefully preventing the next avoidable accident from affecting someone’s life.

My Loved One Was Hurt (Or Died) In a Drunk-Driving Accident. Can I Sue the Business That Sold Them Alcohol?

In some cases, it is possible to extend liability past a drunk driver to the business that served them when they legally should not have. In much of the country, places that sell liquor — such as bars, taverns, liquor stores, and restaurants — can be held liable for damages caused by a drunk driver when the alcohol was purchased from their business. In some jurisdictions, like Maine, this liability extends to private consumption, such as at a party. Florida, however, does not extend liability to “social hosts”, except potentially in some cases where minors were served.

Florida’s liability laws for drunk driving injuries are defined by the state’s “dram shop law” or “dram shop liability statute.” Essentially, a dram shop is any business that sells alcohol by the drink, such as bars, taverns, nightclubs, or restaurants. With roots going back to the Temperance movement of the 1800s, these laws and statutes extend civil liability after an accident to dram shops, making them liable for the harmful acts of their customers if intoxicated. This can include drunk driving accidents and, in some cases, bar fights.

Most of these laws cover third-party victims. That is, someone who’s injured by someone else’s drunk driving might be able to sue the bar where the driver became too intoxicated to operate their vehicle. A few places, such as Pennsylvania, extend this liability to first-person victims, so someone who injures themselves in a drunk driving incident might be able to sue the bar for compensation.

However, it isn’t as simple as suing the bar if a drunk-driving accident happens. Most states, like Florida, have very specific limitations on dram shop liability. If a bartender knowingly serves alcohol to an inebriated customer known to have a drinking problem — or “habitually addicted to alcohol” by reasonable standards — Florida Statutes Section 768.125 says that bar/tavern/nightclub/restaurant is liable due to negligence.

Another example of liability due to negligence by a dram shop is “willfully and unlawfully” providing alcohol to someone under the legal drinking age of 21. Note this isn’t the same as a minor acquiring alcohol through falsified identification but when the bartender or server knows the person isn’t legally allowed to purchase alcohol.

How Would a Dram Shop Liability Lawsuit Work?

Person A is a regular at Person B’s Bar & Grill. The bartender, Person C, knows Person A has a habitual drinking problem because such things are usually difficult to hide from your regular bartender. Nevertheless, every night Person A drops by the bar and gets good and drunk before driving home, and Person C just does their job of serving alcohol.

One night while weaving home, Person A strikes and kills Person D walking down the sidewalk. They’re charged and prosecuted for drunk driving and manslaughter, but they’re also sued by Person E, Person D’s spouse, for liability, loss of consortium, pain, and suffering, and loss of support. The lawsuit also includes Person C, the bartender who knew Person A had a drinking problem but served them to intoxication anyway, and possibly Person B, the owner of the bar if they also knew Person A had an ongoing drinking problem.

Is Pursuing a Dram Shop Liability Claim Difficult?

Yes, filing such a claim can be difficult, but there is precedence. If the claimant is able to provide the needed evidence, they have a stronger chance of having their claim honored.

Typically, lawsuits require a “preponderance of the evidence” of liability. Simply put, this means the amount of evidence and its concreteness shows the complaint detailed in the suit is more likely valid than not. Other phrases often used include “clear and convincing evidence” and “highly probable.” Basically, the plaintiff must demonstrate that there is enough evidence that any reasonable person could have concluded that the patron had a known drinking problem, and serving them would create the risk of danger.

On top of this, the plaintiff must show that the four main provings of negligence have been satisfied: duty of care, a breach in duty, direct causation, and damages.

Statute of Limitations

The state of Florida limits civil liability claims to those filed no more than four years from the initial accident. If you wait more than four years due to extenuating circumstances, the court may hear the case but it’s highly unlikely. 

Damages Potentially Available

  • Medical bills, including hospitalization, rehabilitation, emergency care, surgery, and medication, as well as rehabilitation and physical therapy
  • Lost wages, including wages that might reasonably have been earned, had not the victim’s injuries caused disability
  • Damaged or destroyed property
  • Pain and suffering, loss of support or consortium, and expenses incurred due to loss of ability (i.e., having to hire for lawn work you can no longer do).

Work With an Experienced Drunk Driving Car Accident Lawyer in Tampa

Darrigo & Diaz has been serving the Tampa Bay area for over 20 years and has a history of winning cases for our clients. We’ve got the know-how and diligence to raise the chances of obtaining the compensation you need to get on with your life after someone’s else negligence disturbs it. 

Your first consultation is free, and we don’t see our fee until you win your claim. Call us today at (813) 774-3341 or contact us online to set up a free, no-risk case review.


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