Dram shop laws, or dram shop acts, are designed to make business establishments that are licensed to sell alcohol liable for the injuries or damage caused by patrons to whom they have sold alcohol.

For example, if a bar or tavern sells alcohol to a patron, and that patron then injures someone in a car accident after leaving the bar, the dram shop law gives the injured party the right to sue the bar, as well as the intoxicated person, to recover damages.

Most dram shop laws require businesses that are licensed to sell alcohol and routinely sell it to their customers to stop selling alcohol to people who are visibly, or obviously, intoxicated. Bars, taverns, beer gardens, wineries, breweries and restaurants are examples of the commercial establishments that are covered by dram shop laws.

Thirty states have some form of dram shop act in place, although their exact provisions vary. The goal of dram shop laws is to encourage vendors of alcohol to stop serving customers when they become visibly intoxicated and capable of causing injury or other harm to other people.

It is important to keep in mind that even if a person does not have a case against a business that routinely sells alcohol, the person may still be able to file a negligence lawsuit against the intoxicated person to recover damages.

What Does Ohio’s Dram Shop Act Address?

According to Ohio’s dram shop law, people who have been injured by an intoxicated person may have a cause of action against the business establishment that sold the alcoholic beverage to the person whose negligence was the direct cause of their injury.

The business’s liability depends on where the injury actually occurred:

  • On the Premises: If the injury occurred on the premises of a business licensed to serve alcohol, or in a parking lot under its control, the business owner or their employee may be held liable if the injury was caused by a customer to whom the business served alcohol. The kind of incidents on the premises of the business that lead to liability would be slip and fall accidents or other similar incidents that can cause injury;
  • Off Premises: A business owner who holds a liquor permit or their employee may be held liable for injuries that occurred off the premises of the business, if the owner or employee knowingly continued to serve alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated, or if the person was a minor. These injuries may include automobile accidents, attacks, fist fights, or other incidents that can cause injury.

A case based on dram shop law liability can be difficult to prove. Accidents involving drunk driving can lead to catastrophic injuries and hefty medical bills. In addition, the business involved could possibly lose its liquor license. For these reasons, the business may fight vigorously to defeat a claim.

An example of how difficult it might be to succeed with a dram shop law liability case is the 2017 decision of the Ohio Supreme Court in a case against a club that had a liquor permit and encouraged the exotic dancers it employed to consume alcohol on the job. The club did not keep track of how much alcohol the dancers consumed in the course of an evening, and it allowed one of them to drive home in an intoxicated condition.

The dancer caused an accident, injuring 2 people in another car. One of the victims had more than $1 million in medical bills and permanent physical deformities. A jury awarded the victims almost $3 million, but an Ohio Court of Appeal vacated this award, because, it said, there was no evidence the club “knowingly” sold alcohol to a person who was visibly intoxicated as required by the dram shop law in the state of Ohio.

The facts appeared adverse for the club. It encouraged its patrons to buy drinks for the dancers and charged more for drinks bought for the dancers. NInety-five percent of the club’s revenue came from alcohol sales, and the dancers consumed 35 to 40 percent of all alcohol sold by the club. The club encouraged all of its employees, its security guards, its bartenders and its wait staff to drink at work. The club did not place any limit on the amount of alcohol a dancer could drink and did not keep track of it.

The Court ruled that the injured victim could not sue the liquor permit holder under a negligence theory, because the Dram Shop Act provided the only basis for liability for a business with a license to sell alcohol, and it allows liability only when the permit holder “knowingly” sells alcohol to a “noticeably intoxicated” person. In the opinion of the Ohio Supreme Court, the facts did not justify a finding that the club had “knowingly” sold alcohol to a “noticeably intoxicated person.”

To win a lawsuit based on dram shop liability, a person would need to prove the following:

  • The person who caused injury to damage was either visibly intoxicated or underage. Proving that the person was visibly intoxicated can be challenging, as noted above. Some sources that might be used are footage from video surveillance cameras or eyewitness accounts. These could be used to prove that the owner or a bartender or waiter knew, or should have known, the driver was intoxicated. Of course, identifying suitable eyewitnesses and getting from them the testimony needed might be difficult;
  • The business owner or an employee knowingly and directly served alcohol to the person who was visibly intoxicated;
  • The intoxicated person remained on the premises and caused an accident with injury to another person;
  • Or the intoxicated person left the premises and while off the premises, the intoxicated person caused harm to another person.

Money damages that can be recovered in a dram shop lawsuit would compensate for losses caused by:

  • The cost of medical treatment;
  • Long-term or permanent physical impairment or disability;
  • Permanent disfigurement;
  • Lost wages;
  • Lower earning or career potential;
  • Pain and suffering;
  • Emotional distress or mental anguish;
  • Loss of consortium;
  • The cost of repairing property damage or replacing damaged property if necessary;
  • Funeral expenses, loss of guidance, and loss of consortium, if the accident resulted in the victim’s death.

If the victim can prove that the business providing the alcohol was especially negligent, they might also be entitled to punitive damages. For example, if the intoxicated person was unsteady on their feet and possibly fell after an evening spent in the business consuming alcohol, but the bartender served the person another drink before they left for the night, and allowed the person to drive away, the establishment could be facing punitive damages for the egregious neglect.

Under Ohio’s social host laws, a victim would probably not be able to hold a “social host”, i.e. a person who furnished alcohol to a person in their home, liable for any injuries, but there is an exception to this rule. A victim would be able to hold a “social host” liable if the social host knowingly:served alcohol to a minor, which is a person under the age of 21 for Ohio dram shop act purposes, and the minor caused injuries to another person in a motor vehicle accident.

Of course, the minor would then have to cause injury to another person, either on the social host’s property or off it. If a person who causes injury or harm is over 21, then a victim of the person cannot hold a social host liable.

How Serious Is a Dram Shop Act Violation in Ohio?

As noted above, under Ohio’s dram shop law, a business owner or social host can be liable for significant damages, if they sell or provide alcohol to visibly intoxicated or minor customers. In the worst case scenario, they could potentially be liable for millions of dollars in damages.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

Violations of dram shop laws are potentially very serious. If you have been sued by a person alleging a cause of action under Ohio’s dram shop law, you should consult an Ohio business lawyer for representation.

Or, if you have been injured by a drunk driver who has just left a commercial establishment where they consumed alcohol, you, too, want to consult an Ohio personal injury lawyer. Your lawyer can analyze the facts of your case and advise you about whether a lawsuit based on the dram shop law is an option for you.