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

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

California is one of around 38 U.S. states that have some version of a "dram shop" law on the books. A "dram" is an old British measurement similar to a "shot," so that's where these laws get their name. Dram shop laws create liability for licensed alcohol vendors when they provide alcohol to a clearly intoxicated person, or to a minor, and that person goes on to cause a drunk driving accident (one that results in death, bodily injury, or property damage).

It is important to understand that dram shop laws create additional liability for an alcohol vendor; they do not eliminate liability for the intoxicated person. The purpose of these laws is to create incentive for businesses to refrain from over-serving their patrons, and from serving minors at all.

Dram shop liability in California is pretty limited, as we'll explain in this article. We'll discuss when dram shop liability may exist in the state, and we'll also provide some examples to give these laws some real-life context.

California's Dram Shop Law is Very Limited

California has a tight stance on dram shop liability. Essentially, it has taken the position that the person drinking the alcohol -- not the business serving the alcohol -- is the proximate cause of any injuries that result from an alcohol-related accident.

In other words, if a vendor provides alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated, and that person later causes alcohol-related injuries, the vendor will not be civilly responsible. This is markedly different from dram shop liability in most states where vendors are civilly liable for such behavior.

There is one exception to the rule. If a California business sells alcohol to a minor who is clearly intoxicated, the business may be civilly liable for damages the minor causes in an alcohol-related accident.

The following examples should help:

  • Tom is 25, and stumbling drunk. He walks into Bubba's Bar, and Bubba's continues to serve Tom alcohol. Tom goes on to get into a car crash with Stacy. Stacy can successfully sue Tom directly for her injuries stemming from the crash -- but she can't sue Bubba's.
  • Bobby is 17, and stumbling drunk. He walks into Bubba's Bar, and Bubba's continues to serve Bobby alcohol. Bobby goes on to get into a car crash with Stacy. Stacy can successfully sue Bobby and Bubba's.

(Note: In California, minors may not legally drink alcohol under almost any circumstance -- even if at home in the presence of their parents. One exception to this rule is when a minor consumes a small amount of alcohol as part of a religious service.)

Dram Shop Liability May Be Different at the City Level

Although the state of California has significantly limited dram shop liability, a number of California cities have passed local dram shop laws that apply to minors (that means anyone under the age of 21 for purposes of alcohol consumption).

Where they exist, these local laws create liability for those who serve alcohol to a minor who goes on to cause an alcohol-related injury. Some of these laws make social hosts (individuals who host guests at a party, barbecue, etc.) liable as well -- so it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with your local laws if you live in California.

Criminal Liability for Providing Alcohol in California

California Business and Professions Code section 25602 states that anyone -- an alcohol vendor or social host – may be found guilty of a criminal misdemeanor if they provide alcohol to a "habitual or common drunkard." California defines a "habitual or common drunkard" as either of the following:

(1) any person who is arrested for public intoxication more than three times in any six month period; or

(2) any person designated by a Court as an habitual or common drunkard.

Civil Damages and Criminal Penalties

Because civil dram shop liability has been all but eliminated in California, there is rarely a case where a victim collects personal injury damages, e.g. medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc. The exception (as noted above) is when a person or business provides alcohol to a minor who is obviously intoxicated, and that minor goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident.

On the criminal side, as noted above, providing alcohol to minors is a misdemeanor. Accordingly, a parent or guardian may serve as much as one year in jail and be ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for providing alcohol to their minor child. Similar penalties are in place for vendors that provide alcohol to minors.

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