Holiday alcohol service liability for bars and homeowners

Holidays bring greater risk of alcohol service liability

As we enter the Holiday season, there will be the annual barrage of office parties and in-home celebrations. Everyone should enjoy responsibly and refrain from drinking and driving. They should, but they won’t. So, you should do what you can to make sure that you are protected from alcohol service liability.

In a “Merry Christmas…shitter’s full” kind of way, some goober cousin is inevitably going to get all jacked up on Old Milwaukee and invite the family to watch him do a gainer off the deck into a snow drift.

For bars and restaurants the office party crowd brings its own set of problems. Rank amateurs that can’t hold their liquor, handsy old codgers, and scores of co-workers engaging in potentially dangerous behavior.

“Dram Shop” Liability for Bars

Laws holding alcohol serving establishments liable for the harm caused by patrons are generally known as “Dram Shop” Acts and they vary widely from state-to-state. For example, a Dram Shop Law, might make a bar liable if a patron, after a night of drinking, strikes a pedestrian with his car on the way home.

D.C. does not have a Dram Shop Law, but, licensed establishments can still be held responsible for the harm caused by patrons. This is a legal concept known as negligence per se. Broadly it means if the bar is breaking the law by serving alcohol to the patron, it is potentially liable for the subsequent acts committed by the patron.

For example, it is against the law to sell or serve alcohol to someone under the age of 21. If a bar serves a 19 year old, who then stumbles out of the bar into oncoming traffic, the bar could be responsible. Likewise, it is illegal to “over serve” a customer. So if a bartender continues to serve a visibly intoxicated person, there could be consequences for the bar if the customer gets behind the wheel.

Now you get a sense why liquor insurance is so expensive. On any given night, with dozens or hundreds of drunk people leaving your establishment the exposure is potentially huge.

Social host liability for private homeowners

Given the responsibility of bars, does that mean homeowners also need to be concerned about liability for the spiked egg nog at the neighborhood cookie exchange?

In many states, yes. There are host liability laws making homeowners responsible for the consequences of their guests’ conduct. Most commonly, in cases of underage drinking. D.C. does not have such a law.

Does that mean you can recklessly mete out booze to neighborhood children without consequence? No, it doesn’t, we still live in a society for Christ sake, and the usual rules of negligence apply. However, there is no law that automatically makes you responsible if a drunken guest hurts himself or someone else.

Usually this is where I say, if you have questions call me… However, instead, I am going to say, if you have questions, call your insurance agent, make sure you are protected and for god sake, please don’t do anything stupid this Holiday Season.

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