Dram Shop Liability

Alcohol Sale Liability in Tennessee

Drunk driving is typically entitled one of two ways throughout the United States: driving under the influence (DUI), driving while intoxication (DWI). There is an epidemic of drunk driving in today’s society and the unfortunate result is all too often serious injury or death of person who decides to drive drunk and/or the serious injury or death of an innocent third party. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day an average of twenty-nine people in the united states are killed in vehicular accidents involving alcohol impaired driver. And the annual cost of these same accidents is more than $44 billion. This has led to continual debate among the different states on who can be held liable for the damages to the injured third party. The obvious answer to most would be the intoxicated person that was the specific cause of the injury. However, what about the furnisher or seller of the alcohol that caused the person to become intoxicated in the first place. This extension of liability to potentially include commercial liquor selling establishments has created a category of law known as “dram shop” laws.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines dram shop as “a place where alcoholic beverages are sold; a bar or saloon.” Thus, dram shop liability is further defined as the “civil liability of a commercial seller of alcoholic beverages for personal injury caused by an intoxicated customer.” While this may seem fairly straightforward, dram shop laws have also started to address the potential liability of private citizens, known as social hosts, who serve alcohol to their guest who then becomes intoxicated and causes personal injury to another. There are several different approaches to dram shop laws and third party liability among the several states.

In Tennessee specifically, when a person injured by an intoxicated person brings a claim against a third party furnisher of the alcohol, there are three requirements for the furnisher to be held liable. To be held liable, the plaintiff (injured party) must prove beyond a reasonable doubt both the first requirement and either the second or the third requirement. These requirements are as follows: First, the alcohol sold by the third party furnisher must be the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries or the deceased’s death; Second, if the intoxicated individual was under the legal age to buy alcohol (i.e. twenty-one years of age), the plaintiff must show that the defendant furnisher that sold the alcohol knew the buyer to be under the legal age to purchase, and that such underage person caused the injury to the plaintiff as a direct result of consumption of the alcohol sold by the furnisher; Third, the plaintiff must show that the furnisher sold alcohol to someone of legal age to purchase alcohol, but whom was already obviously intoxicated person and that said person caused the injury to the plaintiff as a direct result of consumption of the alcohol sold by the furnisher. (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-10-101 and 102).

Dram shop laws are about civil liability, however, unlike the majority of civil cases that require a lower level of proof than the criminal level of beyond a reasonable doubt, for example preponderance of the evidence, dram shop liability often requires the same level of proof as a criminal case, being proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In Tennessee, a jury of twelve must find that the plaintiff has proved each of the elements, previously mentioned, beyond a reasonable doubt. This again is a unique feature of dram shop laws, as many civil cases will not require a jury, while dram shop liability claims will require a twelve member jury in Tennessee.

Delving deeper in the concept of third party liability, it is important to next discuss any potential liability of a social host. Does someone who hosts a party and provides alcohol to guest need to be worried about a potential liability lawsuit should one of their guests decided to drive drunk and ends up either injuring or killing another, just as a bar, liquor store, or other commercial alcohol provided could potentially become liable? This is a much harder question to answer. One of the key differences is that a social host is typically drinking with their guests and mingling, whereas at a bar or liquor store, the seller is frequently not drinking and is responsible for the safety of the patrons on the premises as a public venue. This is important because it shows that commercial and public alcohol sellers are able to pay closer attention to patron, whereas social hosts are not as capable of monitoring every guest.

Because of the aforementioned reason and the fact that a social gathering at a private home is not owed the same level of oversight as a public bar or store, the Tennessee dram shop laws have had limitations placed upon them when it comes to social hosts. Tennessee courts have limited third party liability to the sale of alcohol and not just simply the furnishing of alcohol. Thus, a social host who merely provides alcohol without charging their guests for the alcohol are furnishers and not sellers and cannot be held liable if a guest then drives drunk and injures or kills another person.

It is important to remember that dram shop liability is used to potentially hold a seller of alcohol liable to a third party injured by an intoxicated person caused by the sale of alcohol. Dram shop liability is not used in any way to hold the furnisher or the seller liable to the purchaser of the alcohol should they become intoxicated and injure themselves. In short, dram shop does not apply to the purchaser themselves but only those injured by the purchaser.

There is still some grey areas and debated areas when it comes to dram shop laws, but as different types of cases are heard by the courts, new rules and requirements will become established. Thus, expanding or restricting this category of law.