Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Drunk Driving Accidents in Alabama

In Alabama, can a third party -- such as a bar, liquor store, or party host -- be liable for injuries stemming from a drunk driving accident?

Most states in the U.S. have passed some version of a "dram shop" law. These are state statutes that can impose liability on a business for providing alcohol to someone who is obviously intoxicated and who goes on to cause someone else's injury or death in an alcohol-related accident. Some states impose similar liability on individuals. This is typically referred to as "social host liability."

Dram shop laws (so named because alcohol used to be sold in units known as "drams") do not eliminate personal responsibility. In other words, the fact that there may be a cause of action against a third party (the business that provided alcohol to someone who was already intoxicated) does not mean the intoxicated person is no longer directly responsible for the harm they cause.

This article will discuss the specifics of Alabama's dram shop and social host statutes, including some real-life application of these laws.

Civil Liability for Providing Alcohol in Alabama

In Alabama, if someone is injured (meaning they suffer bodily injury, incur property damage, or lose support) because of the actions of an intoxicated person, and the intoxicated person received alcohol (by sale or gift) from a person "contrary to the provisions of law," Alabama Code section 6-5-71 provides that the person who provided the alcohol may be liable for "actual damages" and "exemplary damages."

So what does this mean? First, let's look at who has a right to bring suit. Let's say Paula is driving her vehicle and is struck by Dan, who was served by the bartender at Bob's Bar long after Dan was clearly intoxicated. In addition to any claim she had against Dan, Paula would probably be able to file a lawsuit against Bob's Bar (and the bartender, most likely). In addition, any person who loses the "support" of an injured person would also have a cause of action. So, Paula's child or spouse could also have the right to file a lawsuit against Bob's Bar, under Alabama's dram shop law, if they can prove that Paula's injuries resulted in the loss of "means of support."

As for the phrase, "contrary to the provisions of law," Alabama case law has interpreted this as applying when a person or an establishment (restaurant, store, bar, etc.) sells alcohol to a person who was "visibly intoxicated" or to a minor.

Alabama Code section 6-5-72 addresses the liability of those who provide alcohol or other controlled substances to minors. The language of the two statutes is very similar.

Recoverable Damages Under Section 6-5-71

Alabama Code section 6-5-71 says the injured person can recover "actual" and "exemplary" damages from the person who sold or provided alcohol to the intoxicated person. "Actual damages" are the amount of actual out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of the injury. For bodily injuries, this is usually the amount of medical bills associated with the injury, plus lost income and other quantifiable losses. For property damage, "actual damages" typically means the cost to repair or replace the property.

"Exemplary damages" is another term for punitive damages, which are designed more to punish a defendant for bad behavior (e.g. drunk driving), as opposed to compensating the injured person. There is no set formula for assessing punitive damages. The amount of actual damages and the level of egregiousness involved in the offense are two factors that are likely to come into play. For example, many establishments have regular customers. Suppose one of these "regulars" has multiple DUI's, and the establishment knows about it. If the establishment serves the customer alcohol when he is visibly intoxicated, and the customer goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident, the establishment may get hit with significant punitive damages for serving someone with a known history of driving under the influence.

Finally, with regard to punitive damages, Alabama Code section 6-11-27 provides that an employer will not be liable for punitive damages arising from any intentional wrongful conduct (or malicious conduct) on the part of its employees or other agents.

So, for example, if an employee at a convenience store can tell that a customer is "visibly intoxicated," and thinks it will be funny to sell that person more alcohol, the convenience store may not be liable for punitive damages in the event the intoxicated person goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident.

Single or Multiple Causes of Action

As an additional note on civil liability for alcohol-related accidents in Alabama, the injured person may sue both the intoxicated person and the person who provided the alcohol, in a joint action -- or the injured person may choose to sue either or both parties in separate actions. There may be strategic reasons for taking one route or the other, depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. It may be a good idea to talk to an experienced Alabama lawyer if you are thinking about filing a lawsuit under sections 6-5-71 or 6-5-72.

Learn more about Dram Shop Laws and Bar Liability for Drunk Driving Accidents.

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