Third Party Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents

Alcohol-influenced incidents comprise a substantial proportion of personal injury accidents in the state of California, and in the United States at-large.  In 2015, for example, 28.7% of all traffic-related fatalities in California were linked to a driver’s alcohol impairment, which represents a 1.7% increase year-on-year.  Still, these numbers do not capture the whole story.  Intoxicated persons are not only a danger behind the wheel.  They are more likely to commit any number of civil violations, such as assault and battery.

Importantly, as the victim of an incident involving a defendant who was alcohol-impaired at the time, you may have multiple avenues for recourse in the event that you pursue litigation, thus bettering your chances at being fully compensated for your injuries.

Let’s consider a standard personal injury case.

Suppose that you’re injured in a motor vehicle accident.  You were stopped at a red light legally, then rear-ended by a negligent driver who was speeding.  In this situation, you have a few potential defendants, depending on the details.

You will likely be able to sue the driver, as they are liable for negligently speeding and failing to stop before the collision.  If there was some aspect of your own vehicle (perhaps the collision protection from the rear is far below the industry standard) or of the defendant driver’s vehicle (perhaps the brakes were defectively manufactured) that contributed substantially to the injury, then you may be able to sue the car manufacturers and/or distributors as well.  If there was a visibility issue in the lead-up to the traffic light, then you may be able to sue the owner of the property (either the City, or the private owner).

To simplify: depending on the circumstances, there are a variety of potential defendants that could be held liable for your injuries.

Now, let’s consider an alcohol-impairment case.

Suppose that we use the same situation as above – the rear-end motor vehicle accident – except the defendant driver was intoxicated at the time of the collision.

In this situation, the defendant driver is not only more likely to be found liable, but you may also be able to sue the person or entity who provided the defendant driver with alcohol.  This type of third party liability is commonly referred to as "dram shop liability" or "social host" liability.

In California, however, third party liability for serving drinks to others is somewhat limited, and is only available when certain requirements have been met.

As the two liabilities are intertwined to some degree, let’s consider them together.

Dram Shop and Social Host Liability in California

In California, both dram shop – that is, bars, liquor shops, nightclubs, etc. – and social host liability are limited to a significant extent.  The general legal consensus in both statutory and case law is that the cause of injuries from alcohol-impaired accidents is not the third party who furnishes alcohol to the defendant, but the defendant who consumes the alcohol in the first place.

Dram Shop Liability

The rules are fairly simple for dram shop liability: a vendor who provides a clearly intoxicated minor with alcohol is civilly liable for the damages caused by said minor in a later alcohol-related accident.  In all other scenarios, the vendor cannot be held liable.

Confused?  Consider the following illustrative, short examples.

A 30 year-old man is at a bar, where they furnish him with drinks.  The man is not visibly intoxicated at the time.  Later, the man causes an accident while driving drunk.  The bar cannot be held liable.

A 30 year-old man is at a bar, where they furnish him with drinks.  The man is already visibly intoxicated, slurring his words and flailing around.  Later, the man causes an accident while driving drunk.  The bar cannot be held liable.

A 20 year-old minor is at a bar, where they furnish him with drinks.  The minor is not visibly intoxicated at the time.  Later, the minor causes an accident while driving drunk.  The bar cannot be held liable – but see below.

Importantly, City laws may differ from prevailing state law in this regard.  Some cities have regulated dram shop liability so as to make alcohol vendors liable for later injuries caused by any alcohol-impaired minors that they served.  The minor need not have been visibly intoxicated to extend liability.

A 20 year-old minor is at a bar, where they furnish him with drinks.  The minor is visibly intoxicated.  Later, the minor causes an accident while driving drunk.  The bar can be held liable.

Social Host Liability

Social host liability is somewhat more extensive than dram shop liability in the state of California.  To summarize: if a social host knowingly provides alcohol to a minor – whether that minor is visibly intoxicated or not – then the social host may be held liable for any injuries later caused by such alcohol-impairment (see California Civil Code section 1714(d)(1)).

Of course, a social host does not necessarily have the resources or ability to verify the age of every invitee (especially if those invitees hold themselves out to be of majority age).  To be held liable for injuries caused by furnished minors, the social host must knowingly provide alcohol to said minors.  If the social host was reasonably unaware of the fact that the person(s) was a minor, then they cannot be held liable.

It is also worth noting that the social host may also be held liable for any injuries suffered by the furnished minor, as well.

Liability for Serving a Habitual Drunkard

There is a universal exception, however, that applies to both vendors of alcohol and social hosts.  If either a vendor or a social host provides alcohol to a person who is a "habitual drunkard," then they may be held liable for further alcohol-related injuries.

Under California law, a "habitual drunkard" is a person who has either been arrested for public intoxication more than three times in six months, or who has been designated thusly by a Court.

Thus, even though California law seems to completely shield vendors and social hosts from liability for furnishing drinks to both visibly and non-visibly intoxicated adults, there is an additional avenue for a lawsuit in the event of an accident involving an alcohol-impaired defendant.  If the defendant is a "habitual drunkard" then you may be able to sue the offending vendor or social host, thus opening up your lawsuit.


For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney, call the Law Offices of Brian O’ Grady at (650) 318-6131 to set up your appointment today.