• Dram Shop Liability: Drunk Driver Accident Claims Against Bars and Other Businesses
  • October 1, 2012 | Author: Robert J. Reeves
  • Law Firm: Reeves, Aiken & Hightower LLP - Fort Mill Office
  • The laws that allow for liability against servers of alcohol after an accident caused by a drunk person are called dram shop laws, tavern-keeper liability, or social host laws, “dram shop” being the old legal name for purveyors of alcohol.  

    Unfortunately, it is an all too common situation that an individual doesn’t have the insurance or other resources to cover the damage they cause others.  Many individuals have no or insufficient auto liability insurance, and sometimes accidents are so serious that a plaintiff’s damages (the dollar amount awardable for injuries) will be greater than the auto liability policy limits required by law.  In these situations where an individual is injured by a drunk driver, the bar, liquor, beer, or wine store, or even individuals or businesses hosting a party may be liable for the results of the drunk driving accident, if they acted negligently.

    Ordinarily, acting negligently in serving alcohol will mean serving alcohol to someone that a reasonable person would know shouldn’t be served alcohol, due to the unreasonable danger it may create.  That’s the basis of negligence:  doing something that creates an unreasonable danger for others.  Individuals that servers of alcohol have a duty not to serve include people who are visibly intoxicated, individuals who servers have other reason to believe are intoxicated, individuals who servers have reason to believe will become intoxicated after the drink to be served, and anyone under 21.  The server not paying attention or not carding is no excuse.  

    The standard here is objective, not subjective.  When gauging whether a person should have sold someone alcohol, what matters is not the individual server’s impression of the person.  It is whether a reasonable, ordinary person would think the person was intoxicated knowing the facts that the server should have known.  So if the person is slurring their speech or stumbling, and the server doesn’t notice, he or she should have, and the server’s business will likely be liable in negligence.

    The exception is the underage drinker.  The law requires persons who appear under a certain age to be carded as a matter of course.  It doesn’t matter if the person looked 25 to a reasonable person.  The reasonable person instead would always card individuals who look like they could possibly be twenty one to avoid penalties for themselves and the business they work for.
    Unlike many states, South Carolina does not recognize dram-shop type liability outside of a business, rejecting attempts to create liability for social hosts.  It also, somewhat unusually, does not have a dram-shop statute, but rather the South Carolina Supreme Court has adopted the rule in the common law.  Jamison v. The Pantry, Inc., 392 S.E.2d 474 (S.C. App. 1990).  In many states, it was the legislature that took the lead, causing rules proposed by organizations like MADD to become law.  South Carolina’s laws are correspondingly more conservative in finding liability against social hosts and similar theories.  For example,  South Carolina generally recognizes first-party negligent entrustment claims, i.e. claims against a defendant who negligently entrusted something, like a car, to the plaintiff, who was later injured due to the entrustment.  South Carolina does not, however, recognize these sorts of claims when the plaintiff was negligently entrusted with the defendant’s car while plaintiff was intoxicated.  Garren v. Cummings & McCrady, Inc., 289 S.C. 348 (1986).

    An exception to the general rule that social hosts do not bear liability for the actions of their drunk hostees is that individuals who encourage an individual’s excessive consumption will be held liable for the harm to that individual and likely harm that individual causes others.  Ballou v. Sigma Nu General Fraternity, 352 S.E.2d 488 (S.C. App. 1986).