It should go without saying a drunk driver can be held liable under New York law for any injuries he or she causes to third parties. But the law can also hold those persons who served the drunk driver responsible. Under what is known as the Dram Shop Act, anyone who “unlawfully” sells liquor to another person may be sued for injuries arising from the buyer's intoxication.
An unlawful sale of liquor obviously includes any sale to a person under the age of 21. It also includes any sale to a person who is already “visibly intoxicated.” But what constitutes “visible” intoxication? If a bartender directly observes a patron drinking too much and continues to serve him or her, it may be an open-and-shut case. But New York law does not require direct observation to establish visible intoxication. Circumstantial evidence may be enough for a jury to hold a bar or restaurant liable.
For example, in a 1998 case, the New York Court of Appeals upheld a multi-million jury verdict against a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Amherst. Eight years earlier, a police officer was killed by a drunk driver who had just left the restaurant. The officer's widow sued under the Dram Shop Act. At trial, the jury heard testimony from an expert witness who analyzed the drunk driver's blood alcohol content and determined he “consumed 12 drinks” before leaving Friday's. Several police officers also observed the driver's intoxicated state at the scene of the accident. Based on this evidence, the Court of Appeals held “it was not irrational for the jury” to conclude the driver was “visibly intoxicated,” and therefore Friday's served him illegally. It was not necessary to produce any direct evidence of a Friday's employee witnessing the driver's intoxication.
More recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held a Long Island restaurant could face trial over a Dram Shop claim arising from a drunk driver who struck and killed a pedestrian in 2008. Before the Suffolk County Supreme Court, several witnesses testified they saw the driver at the restaurant on the evening of the accident, and she did not present any signs of visible intoxication. But the Second Department said there was also testimony from the arresting police officer who said the driver “had alcohol on her breath, slurred her speech, had bloodshot eyes, and was unsteady on her feet.” This testimony was sufficient to deny the restaurant's motion for summary judgment.
Need Legal Help With a Dram Shop Act Claim?
All bars and restaurants have a legal and moral obligation to avoid serving intoxicated patrons. If you or someone you know has been injured by a drunk driver and there is reason to believe a bartender's irresponsible serving contributed to the accident, it is essential to work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Dram Shop claims are complicated as they involve multiple parties and, as the examples above illustrate, can take several years to resolve. If you need to speak with an attorney right away, contact our offices today.