Dram Shop Laws: Can I Sue a Bar After an Alcohol Related Accident?

In certain circumstances, the victim of an alcohol related accident can hold the bar or restaurant liable for the intoxicated person’s conduct. “Dram shop” laws are state statutes that hold alcohol-serving establishments (and even private social gatherings) responsible for negligent service.

New Jersey’s dram shop law is found in Section 2A:22A-4 of the Revised Statutes. Under this statute, someone who is injured as a result of negligent service of alcoholic beverages can only sue if:

  • The server is deemed negligent
  • The injury or damage was a direct result of the negligent alcohol service
  • The injury or damage was a foreseeable consequence of the negligent service

In other words, a server or bartender has a responsibility to exercise reasonable caution when serving alcoholic drinks; in this case, “reasonable caution” means not serving visibly drunk customers or minors. If the provider of alcoholic beverages fails to exercise that caution and someone is harmed as a direct result, the provider is open to liability for those damages.

Under this same statute, a server of alcoholic beverages (be it a bartender, waitress, etc.) is deemed to be negligent if he or she serves a visibly intoxicated patron or serves a minor (under circumstances where he or she reasonably should have known that the patron was a minor).

Most dram shop cases are “third-party” cases. Third-party dram shop cases involve an intoxicated person injuring another person (rather than him or herself). For example, say a clearly intoxicated man is served at a bar, then gets behind the wheel and gets into a car accident. The other driver in this situation would be entitled to bring a civil suit against the bar or restaurant (the “third party”) to recover damages, so long as the driver can prove the intoxicated driver was over-served.

A significant share of liquor liability cases come down to proving that the patron was “visibly intoxicated” at the time he or she was served. Under New Jersey law, visible intoxication means “a state of intoxication accompanied by a perceptible act or series of acts which present clear signs of intoxication.” This can include slurred speech, the smell of alcohol on the breath, stumbling around, or other signs of drunkenness. Bartenders and servers are prohibited by law from serving visibly intoxicated customers, and if they do over-serve, they can open themselves and the establishment up to liability.

New Jersey’s dram shop law, unlike liquor liability laws in some other states, also allows “first-party” cases from minors served at a bar or restaurant. In other words, if someone under 21 is served alcohol and suffers injuries as a result (i.e. in a car accident, serious fall, etc.), the minor can sue the establishment for damages. This provision is designed to further discourage serving underage patrons, as it can open up the business to serious liability.

It is important to note that New Jersey liquor liability laws do not apply only to bars, restaurants, sports arenas, and other liquor-serving establishments; it also applies to private parties. This principle, known as “social host liability,” holds social hosts responsible for over-serving party guests or serving minors. Therefore, if a party host serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest who then causes injury to someone else, the host could be found liable for the damages.