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Drunk Driving in California: When can Bars be Held Liable for Serving Over-Intoxicated Patrons?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017By Richard Alexander

We've all seen it happen – we’re at a bar or restaurant and one of the patrons starts speaking a little louder than normal. He’s slurring his words and may begin to fight with his friends or with other customers. He then demands another drink from the bartender. Incredibly, the bartender serves another drink to this obviously intoxicated customer. If the patron leaves the bar and kills someone while driving drunk is the bartender liable?

Whether a bar can be held civilly liable for overserving an obviously intoxicated patron is a question that the majority of U.S. states have addressed through legislation. These types of laws are known as “dram shop” laws, a term derived from establishments in 18th Century England that sold gin by the spoonful (called a "dram"). Dram shop laws can allow the victims of drunk drivers and their families to sue liquor vendors for providing alcohol to a clearly intoxicated person who later causes an accident.

While most states allow civil suits against alcohol vendors under dram shop laws, California does not. In California, the law is clear that a third-party cannot be civilly liable for continuing to serve an over-intoxicated person, even if that person later drives drunk.

A vendor can be held liable criminally, however. California Business and Professions Code Section 25602 governs the criminal and civil liability of a third-party for serving alcohol to others. Section 25602(a) makes it a misdemeanor for a third-party to sell or give liquor to a “habitual or common drunkard” or to an “obviously intoxicated person.”

California law does not extend liability to the same extent to third parties, however, in the civil arena. In California, a third-party is generally not civilly liable for serving an overly intoxicated person unless that person is a minor. Section 25602.1 carves out an exception to the general rule that third-parties are not liable and states that a third-party is only civilly liable for serving alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor.

In addition, several California cities have established local “dram shop” regulations that apply to vendors who serve minors. These laws could possible hold social hosts liable for over-serving minors as well. For this reason, it is important to speak with an attorney who is knowledgeable about California law to determine who is liable for an accident-related to alcohol use prior to filing a lawsuit.

Drunk driving ruins lives. If you or family member are the unfortunate victim of a drunk driving accident, call us immediately to discuss your rights. The knowledgeable attorneys at Alexander Law Group have extensive experience litigating drunk driving cases and can help you determine who to sue and how to achieve the highest possible recovery. Call us now at 888.777.1776 for a free, private consultation to learn more.  

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