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Are Bars Responsible for the Actions of Their Patrons?

If there’s one thing that’s more likely to cause someone to hurt another person, it’s alcohol. Drinking is well-known for its ability to lower people’s inhibitions and coordination, leading to problems like bar fights and drunk driving.

In fact, these problems are so widely understood that there are laws in place that dictate who’s responsible for alcohol-related crimes. These laws, known as dram shop laws, cover essential topics such as when bars are responsible for the actions of the people they get drunk.

If you’ve been hurt by a drunk person and you’re wondering whether a bar is responsible for your injuries, keep reading. You’ll learn about California’s dram shop laws, what constitutes liability, and situations where bars are – and aren’t – responsible for their patrons.

What Is Dram Shop Law?

Dram shop laws, also known as social host liability laws, dictate when a host or bar are responsible for their guests’ actions and injuries. These laws were first put in place in the US before and during Prohibition. They were originally intended to hold alcohol providers tightly accountable for the actions of the people to whom they provide alcohol, but they’ve been loosened dramatically in the years since. Dram shop laws can apply to businesses that sell alcohol as well as people hosting parties and giving away alcohol.

Dram Shop Law in California

Dram shop laws are different in every state. These laws can approach the issue of liability from two very different standpoints. Some states argue that damages caused by an intoxicated person result from the sale or gift of alcohol to that person. Others, including California, say that the damages are caused by the intoxicated person’s decision to drink.

Specifically, the law states that giving someone alcohol “is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

This is an important distinction. The first viewpoint leaves liability with the seller, while the second places it with the drinker. California’s laws mean that in most situations, bars and “social hosts” who give people alcohol are not responsible for the actions of those who drink it. However, there are a few important exceptions to that rule, which we’ll cover shortly.

Civil vs. Criminal Liability in Dram Shop Law

First, there’s one other consideration when it comes to liability and dram shop law. These laws cover two kinds of liability: civil and criminal. Criminal liability is responsibility for committing a crime, while civil liability is responsibility for causing someone economic, physical, or emotional harm.

Criminal liability is left up to the criminal justice system. While a criminal case may occasionally lead to a victim receiving restitution, the purpose is to identify if someone committed a crime and enact legal penalties. Furthermore, it requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a significant burden of proof. Under California’s dram shop laws, giving or selling alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated person” is a misdemeanor, for instance.

If you want to reclaim damages for someone’s drunken behavior, you must pursue a civil case instead. Civil liability covers incidents where one party harms another, and the victim sues for compensation. For example, if you’re hit by a drunk driver and believe they should pay your medical bills, then you think they are civilly liable.

When Bars Face Civil Liability for Their Patrons’ Actions

So when is a bar actually liable in civil court for their patrons’ behavior? Well, that depends; here’s what California law has to say about four different situations.

Yes: Obviously Intoxicated Minors

The most critical situation in which bars are liable for their patrons’ behavior is when an “obviously intoxicated minor” is involved. This is a specific exception in California’s dram shop laws. If a bar serves an “obviously intoxicated” minor alcohol, the venue may be liable for any injuries the minor suffers or causes.

This is because California requires bars to card patrons. If a bar has allowed a minor on-premises and serves them alcohol despite being intoxicated, it has been extremely negligent. As a result, California holds these bars responsible for the minor’s actions.

No: Bar Fights

Bar fights are considered the responsibility of the aggressive person. In an individual fight, California’s definition of proximate cause comes into play. The fighters’ decision to drink is considered the proximate cause of their injuries, not the bar’s decision to serve them.

Yes: Negligent Security

While a venue isn’t responsible for a single bar fight, it can eventually be held liable for “negligent security.” Essentially, bars, restaurants, and other venues are responsible for keeping their space safe for patrons. They need to take “reasonable actions” to prevent predictable or standard problems.

At places where alcohol is served, that may mean implementing security. For instance, if a bar has experienced a trend of belligerent drinkers or bar fights, then a reasonable action would be to hire security guards. If a facility doesn’t hire security when it reasonably should, then it may be negligent. In that case, the bar may be held partially liable for the injuries caused by a fight that security could have prevented.

No: Drunk Drivers

One of the most essential restrictions of dram shop law covers drunk driving. If bars were found liable for the damages caused by drunk drivers, it’s unlikely that anyone would take the risk of operating one. California’s dram shop laws specifically do not hold alcohol sellers civilly responsible for the actions of their patrons. The decision to drink and drive is considered personal, so the serving facility is not considered liable for damages caused by drunk driving. The driver is the only one considered responsible.

Hold the Right Parties Responsible

No matter what harm a drunk person causes, it’s a tragedy. If you or someone you love has been injured by an intoxicated person, you deserve help getting your life back to normal. A civil lawsuit can help you recover damages to cover your bills and compensate you for your pain and suffering. You just need to make sure that you hold the right people accountable.

Working with an experienced personal injury attorney can let you accomplish that. They’ll help you determine whether the bar or the drunk person is responsible for your injuries and how to recover the damages you need. Get in touch today to schedule your consultation and discuss your case.

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