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

In Colorado, 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 statutes known as "dram shop" laws. These laws can make a business liable for providing alcohol to a minor, or to someone who is clearly intoxicated, if that person causes injury, death, or property damage in an alcohol-related accident. Dram shop claims are different from other injury claims because liability is imposed on a third party, not on the actor who is the direct cause of damage.

It is important to note that, while dram shop laws impose liability on a third party, they do not eliminate personal responsibility. In other words, the intoxicated person will still be directly responsible for any harm they cause in an alcohol-related accident. Dram shop laws establish liability in addition to the intoxicated person’s liability.

In addition to dram shop laws, some states extend similar liability to individuals who provide alcohol to minors or intoxicated persons in a social setting, like a party. This type of liability is referred to as "social host liability."

In this article, we'll look at Colorado law as it applies to third party liability for drunk driving accidents and other mishaps.

Dram Shop Law in Colorado

You can find Colorado's dram shop law at Colorado Revised Statutes section 12-47-801. Section 12-47-801 says that businesses that sell alcohol can be held responsible if they provide alcohol to someone who is visibly intoxicated, or to a minor under 21 years old, and that person goes on to injure someone in an alcohol-related accident.

Let's look at an example. Mark is at a local bar called The Rusty Kitten. Mark has been drinking to the point that he can barely walk. In fact, he has fallen down three times. In addition, his speech is slurred and makes little sense. In spite of the fact Mark is visibly intoxicated, Frank, the bartender, continues to serve Mark alcohol. Eventually, Mark leaves The Rusty Kitten. When he does, however, he stumbles into Jake, causing Jake to fall to the ground and break his wrist. Jake may sue Mark directly for his injury; however, he may also have a claim against The Rusty Kitten. Note: If Mark was not visibly intoxicated, but he was a minor, The Rusty Kitten could also be liable under Colorado’s dram shop law.

While it may be foreseeable that an intoxicated person may stumble into someone else, or get in a car accident, the injury that results does not need to be a foreseeable consequence of drinking alcohol for an injured person to recover against a business in a dram shop case.

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

Social Host Liability in Colorado

Colorado’s laws are different when a social host, rather than a licensed business, is serving alcohol to a minor or someone who is visibly intoxicated. A social host, as you might assume, is someone without a license to sell alcohol, who serves alcohol in a private setting, like a backyard barbecue.

In Colorado, social hosts will not be liable for serving alcohol to someone who is 21 or older, even if that person is visibly intoxicated. However, if a social host knowingly serves alcohol to a minor, the social host can be liable if the minor goes on to injure someone in an alcohol-related accident. The same is true if a social host merely provides a setting for minors to consume alcohol.

Let's say Trent is hosting a neighborhood party. Trent is careful not to serve alcohol to any minors. However, James, a 17-year-old boy from the neighborhood, brings a bottle of vodka he took from his parents’ liquor cabinet. James doesn’t want to get caught by his parents, so he asks Trent if he can drink the vodka in Trent’s basement. Trent gives James permission to do so. Later that night, James decides to take his car to pick up his girlfriend. On his way there, James swerves off the road and strikes Phoebe, who was out for a jog. Phoebe may sue Trent for her injuries because he provided a place for a minor (James) to drink alcohol.

Available Damages

A person with a dram shop or "social host" claim in Colorado may be able to recover the following damages:

  • medical expenses, e.g. ambulance rides, ER visits, physical therapy, prescriptions;
  • lost wages
  • property damage (repair or replacement value); and/or
  • pain and suffering.

It is important to note that Colorado limits the amount of recovery to $150,000 in these kinds of cases.

Watch the Statute of Limitations

The kinds of lawsuits we're discussing here need to be filed within one year of the alcohol-related accident, in order to comply with Colorado's statute of limitations. In some situations, dram shop liability is not immediately known and only comes to light after a lawsuit has been filed against the intoxicated person.

In some cases, a business may be added as party to a lawsuit even if the statute of limitations has otherwise run against the business -- as long as a timely suit was filed against the intoxicated person. This may not always be the case, so it is worth speaking with a licensed Colorado lawyer about the details of your situation.

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