Can You Be Held Responsible for Serving a Drunk Driver Who Injures Someone?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on September 1st, 2014

Two friends who recently opened a wine bar asked me if they could be held responsible for an accident caused by a drunken patron who decided to get behind the wheel. The question is a legitimate one because we all know someone who works in the service industry as a server, bartender, or alcohol-serving establishment owner.

“Dram shop laws” are laws that hold establishments liable for damage caused by accidents, injuries, or deaths as a result of a customer’s drunk driving after they have left the establishment. The word “dram” is a British term of measurement for alcohol similar to a shot. In the United States the term “dram shop” refers to establishments that continue to serve alcohol to customers who are already clearly intoxicated.

While most states have some variation of dram shop laws, they differ as to how much liability, if any, is imposed on an alcohol-serving establishment who serves an intoxicated patron who later causes damage, injury, or death as a result of their drunk driving. Some states hold an establishment strictly liable if their drunk patron drives and causes damage, injury, or death. This means that the establishment’s service of the alcohol is deemed to be the proximate cause of any damage occurring after the intoxicated person leaves the establishment.

So what’s the law in California?

Fortunately for my entrepreneurial friends, California no longer follows the strict liability standard. California Civil Code section 1714 provides:

(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to . . . reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.

(d) Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

Simply put, a person’s willful act of drinking and driving are the proximate cause of any damage caused by the drunk driving, not the service of the alcohol by the establishment. If, however, the establishment serves alcohol to a minor who drive drunk and causes causes damage, injury, or death, the establishment may be held liable.

While my friends might be shielded from civil liability if an intoxicated patron causes damage, injury, or death, they may be held criminally liable if they serve alcohol to an obviously intoxicate person.

California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a) states “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

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