Will Massachusetts’s dram shop law let me sue a bar or restaurant after a DUI accident?

Get the specifics on a business’s potential liability for an alcohol-related accident in Massachusetts.

First, the basics: "Dram shop" laws are state laws that can be used to hold a business liable for providing alcohol to someone whose intoxication goes on to play a role in causing a drunk driving accident or some other kind of alcohol-related mishap.

Massachusetts does not have a specific statute that permits a business to be held liable when a customer goes on to cause an alcohol-related accident. But Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 138 Section 69 says "No alcoholic beverage shall be sold or delivered on any premises licensed under this chapter to an intoxicated person." And the state's courts have allowed personal injury claimants to hold restaurants and other businesses liable for damages caused by an alcohol-related accident if the business was negligent in selling alcohol to a customer.

"Negligence" in this context includes situations where the customer is already visibly or obviously intoxicated, and where a reasonable business owner would know that the customer was already intoxicated at the time he or she tried to purchase more alcohol.

Example of Liability Under Massachusetts's Dram Shop Law

There are many different circumstances under which an alcohol vendor could wind up being civilly liable for an accident victim's damages in Massachusetts, even though it was the intoxicated customer who actually caused the accident.

Let's say Paula stops at Damon's Wine & Spirits to buy a bottle of her favorite red wine. Paula is slurring her words and reeks of alcohol when she comes to the counter. Damon, the owner of the store, even has to help Paula swipe her credit card through the reader so that she can pay. But Damon completes the sale anyway and watches Paula get back into her car.

A few minutes later Paula runs a red light and collides with Victor's car. Police come to the scene and administer a Breathalyzer to Paula, who blows a .19, meaning she was clearly driving under the influence of alcohol under Massachusetts law.

Victor can definitely file a lawsuit against Paula for causing the car accident. (Learn more: DUI and Fault for a Car Accident.) But can he also sue Damon's? Probably, as long as Victor can show that Paula was visibly intoxicated at the time she came to the counter to buy the wine. Those are pretty easy dots to connect given these facts, especially if there were other customers who can testify as to Paula's behavior.

Watch the Massachusetts Statute of Limitations

Any personal injury lawsuit filed over an alcohol-related accident -- whether it's against the intoxicated person or the business that provided the alcohol -- needs to be brought within the time limit set by the Massachusetts statute of limitations for these kinds of cases. That means you must get the initial complaint filed within three years of the date of the underlying incident, according to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 260 section 2A.

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