Jim Porter: Server of alcohol liable for injuries caused by drunk driver? | SierraSun.com

Jim Porter: Server of alcohol liable for injuries caused by drunk driver?

Jim Porter

If you are injured by a drunk driver, can you sue the bar or bartender who served the alcohol? If you’re hit by a drunk driver who left a private party, can you sue the party host?

Does it make a difference if the drinker was a minor? What if the drinker was already intoxicated when served? Glad you asked.


Most states have “Dram Shop” laws imposing liability or providing immunity for servers of alcohol. The common scenario is this: bartender or social host (you for example) serves alcohol, driver leaves (and avoids the cops sitting outside the bars), and causes an accident that injures or kills someone.

That someone or their estate (you, for example) sue the alcohol server — the bar or the home owner — where the drinking occurred. Here is the law in California, which by the way, changed in 2011.


Any person who sells or gives away alcohol or causes it to be sold or given away “to a habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person” is guilty of a misdemeanor — a crime. That’s the criminal side. The civil — personal liability — side is different.


For decades, servers of alcoholic beverages in California were generally immune from lawsuits brought by victims of drunk drivers.

The often-stated finding was and still is: “The consumption of alcoholic beverages rather than the serving of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted on another by an intoxicated person.” The drinker not the pourer is the responsible party.

After a series of (Rose Bird) California Supreme Court cases in the 1970s that made bars potentially liable for serving drinks to someone who drove away and injured or killed someone, the Legislature in 1978 changed the law back to what it had been.


We wrote about a case four years ago where a young lady hosted a party at her house and charged everyone $3, for which she supplied most of the alcohol.

An unruly, drunk minor drove off and killed someone. The young social host was sued. The Court of Appeal ruled she had not “sold” alcohol to a minor so she escaped liability.

Last month the case was overturned by the California Supreme Court, which gives us a chance to summarize this area of the law.


Bars and bartenders are generally immune from serving alcoholic beverages to their patrons who then drive away and kill someone — with one exception.

A licensee who sells or causes alcoholic beverages to be sold to an “obviously intoxicated minor” loses civil immunity and may be sued for injuries or death caused by the drinking minor. For licensees: Generally immunity unless an obviously intoxicated minor is served.


What if you furnish alcohol at your home? Are you responsible?

A social host may be sued by a victim for serving or furnishing alcohol to a minor who subsequently causes injuries or death.

While bars are immune from civil lawsuits unless they serve an obviously intoxicated minor, social hosts allowing alcohol to be furnished at their home are responsible for a minor’s subsequent driving behavior if they knew or should have known the drinker was under 21.

Generally, there is no civil liability (for the server) for serving alcohol to adults.


If you are serving alcohol or allowing anyone to furnish alcohol to minors at your home, you generally will be liable for injuries or deaths the minor subsequently causes. If minors are drinking at your home, which they shouldn’t be, do not let them drive, period.

Do not let anyone drive after drinking too much. Be forceful about it if necessary.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or http://www.portersimon.com.

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