Will Illinois'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 Illinois.

First things first: "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. Not every state has a dram shop law on the books, and even in the states that have passed them, these laws can vary widely when it comes to the details of an alcohol vendor's potential liability.

Illinois's dram shop law can be found at 235 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/6-21, and it fairly broadly says that the owner of a business that sells liquor can be held liable for physical injury to a person and for damage to property, or for loss of companionship and support, where:

  • someone is injured or killed by the actions of an intoxicated person, and
  • the intoxication was caused by consumption of liquor provided by that business, and
  • the injury or property damage or other loss was caused by the person's intoxication.

Example of Liability Under Illinois's Dram Shop Law

How does this law work in the real world? It's important to note that Illinois's dram shop law doesn't require that the business owner or employee knew of the customer's intoxication. That's pretty rare among states that have passed a dram shop law (most states require some showing of the defendant's awareness of the customer's intoxication). So there are many different kinds of situations where the Illinois law could apply.

Let's say Peter stops at Darla's Liquor Store to buy a six-pack. Peter actually drinks four of the beers right in the parking lot. A few minutes later he runs a red light and collides with Victor's car. Police come to the scene and administer a Breathalyzer to Peter, who blows a .16, meaning he was clearly driving under the influence of alcohol under Illinois law. Both Victor and Peter have sustained serious injuries.

Victor can definitely file a lawsuit against Peter for causing the car accident. (Learn more: DUI and Fault for a Car Accident.) But can he also sue Darla's Liquor Store? Probably, as long as Victor can show that he was injured by Peter's actions (running the red light), that Peter's intoxication was caused by consumption of liquor provided by Darla's, and that the injury (meaning the underlying accident) was caused by Peter's intoxication. Those are pretty easy dots to connect given these facts.

No Dram Shop Claim by an Intoxicated Customer in Illinois

It's important to point out that even though Peter was himself injured in the accident, he can't rely on Illinois's dram shop law to file a civil lawsuit against Darla's. Illinois law specifically prohibits this kind of recovery by the person who was intoxicated.

Damage Limits in Illinois Dram Shop Claims

Illinois sets a cap on damages available in dram shop claims, meaning the alcohol vendor's liability is limited to a certain dollar amount. The last dollar limits detailed in the statute -- for claims brought after 1998 -- were:

  • $45,000 for an accident victim's personal injury, and
  • $55,000 for an affected family member's loss of companionship or support due to an accident victim's injury or death.

But the statute allows for an annual increase and decrease of these caps based on the consumer price index. So check with an Illinois attorney for the latest details on the cap amount.

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