Bar Owner Liability: Ohio’s Dram Shop Laws

Bar owner liability, Dram Shop Laws
Bar owner liability, Dram Shop Laws

In 2017, the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled five-to-one that the “dram shop statute” (Ohio R.C. 4399) is “the exclusive remedy” for a dram shop in the event a patron sues for being “over served.” The holding by the court was significant because while it held that Plaintiff’s must prove a liquor establishment “knowingly” sold liquor to “a noticeably intoxicated person,” the court did not specifically differentiate between the buyer of the alcohol and the end recipient.

In other words, just because a sober patron buys an alcoholic beverage, if the individual who consumes the drink is clearly intoxicated, the establishment could be held liable in the event of an accident or injury that can be directly tied to the actions of the intoxicated individual.

While the court appeared in the Montgomery case appeared to hold an expansive view of the defenses available under the dram shop statute, the truth is a little more complicated. The law is clear: Bar owners and dram shops owe a responsibility to their patrons.

Unfortunately, in the real world, that’s not always how it works out. Whether through negligence or malfeasance, sometimes bad things happen. Knowing your rights and how a lawyer can help you can go a long way towards helping you mitigate the harm you have experienced provide you with appropriate compensation for your injuries.

Defining Bar Owner Liability

In Ohio, any commercial establishment that sells alcohol can be held legally responsible for damages caused by an intoxicated patron. Because historically bars and taverns were once described as “dram shops,” the set of laws establishing this legal responsibility are known as “dram shop liability laws.” Dram shop liability laws cover bars, restaurants, taverns, and any other commercial establishment that sells alcohol.

Under the Dram Shop law, an establishment can be held responsible if:

  1. An individual who is “noticeable intoxicated” is knowingly served alcohol and that intoxicated person causes injury to another person
  2. When a dram shop knowingly serves alcohol to a minor

In order to prevail at trial, the plaintiff must prove that a bar owner knowingly overserved a clearly intoxicated person. In addition, the plaintiff must show that the intoxication was the reason the damage or harm occurred. It must also be established that the bartender, server, or owner acted with “reckless disregard of the law” by either overserving or servicing a minor.

Some examples of this type of blatant activity include:

  • Not asking for an ID
  • Failing to adequately check an ID to ensure it is valid
  • Serving someone smelling of alcohol and acting drunk
  • Serving a patron an amount of alcohol that far surpasses what could be reasonable consumption

Types of Damages

While drunk driving is perhaps the most obvious cause of alcohol-related injuries, the truth is that there are variety of ways over-serving (or serving a minor) can cause damages. If an intoxicated person assaults another patron for example. Of a minor could negligently cause damage to a private home or other business as a result of having consumed too much alcohol.

It is important to note that in addition to commercial establishments, Ohio state law also holds, under the Social Host Liability Law, that homeowners and employers can also be held liable under 4399.18. If a guest or employee is allowed to leave the premises in an intoxicated state and ends up being the cause of an accident or injury, liability will attach to the person who served the alcohol.

Dram Shop Law Legal Remedies

Ohio’s Dram Shop law creates a legal responsibility on the part of an alcohol-serving establishment. As a result, anyone who has been injured by the intoxicated party can seek damages as part of a civil lawsuit. In the event the injured party decides to sue, the plaintiff can request recompense for the following injuries and damages:

  1. medical bills
  2. lost wages and benefits (spanning recovery time but also including total liability that could prevent the plaintiff from returning to work)
  3. lost value of household services or childcare
  4. property damage, and
  5. pain and suffering.

Do you need a lawyer?

When you are the victim of an unexpected and catastrophic event, you first thought is surviving and mitigating the damage. But once the dust settles, it is appropriate to consider whether you might need legal representation. If you believe there is a clear path between the other party’s actions and your suffering, and the other party (or parties) is in a position to compensate you for your loss, then legal action makes sense.

If you do decide to go court, you may need to hire a lawyer in order to fully exercise your rights under the law.

Acquiring legal representation makes sense if:

  • The case is complex and involves multiple parties
  • The compensation/damages requested are significant
  • The case cannot be resolved in small claims court or through alternative dispute resolution programs (mediation)

If you do decide to hire a lawyer, choosing the right attorney can seem overwhelming. There are many resources you can contact as you make your choice, including your state bar and other local or regional legal associations. Victims’ rights advocacy programs are also a good resource. As you wade through your choices, pay attention to your candidate’s experience, personality, and professionalism. You want to make sure you partner with a lawyer who pairs well with both your personality and budget.

When the Worst Happens

According to the CDC, over 3600 people were killed in drunk driving accidents in Ohio between 2003 and 2012, just a hair-s breadth below the national average. A majority of those accidents involved those under 35 years of age, and men were almost four times as likely to die as women in crashes involving a driver with a BAC of .08% or higher. Perhaps most concerning of al., 2.2% of Ohioans report driving after having had too much to drink, or, as the CDC explains, “drunk drivers got behind the wheel millions of times in 2010.”

Accidents are, by their very nature, unavoidable. Whether it’s a drunk driver causing a fatal accident or an intoxicated teen accidentally starting a fire or breaking a window, the injured party is left with injuries or property damage through no fault of their own. The civil courts exist in order to provide victims with a path towards compensation and remuneration. If you are harmed by a intoxicated individual, you do not have to prove intent, just cause-and-effect.

And this is why the Dram Shop laws are so significant. The dram shop laws open up an avenue for compensation in the event an innocent party is injured by an inebriated individual. For example, if a drunk driver causes an accident, all those who were involved could recover expenses and punitive damages if a bar or other establishment knowingly served him or her alcohol after they were clearly inebriated.

Sometimes bad things happen. Whether it’s an accident, negligence, or ill intent, there are times when the only solution is to pursue legal action. Thankfully, deciding to initiate a legal action and hiring a lawyer doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Knowing your rights and choosing the right lawyer can go a long way towards getting you the compensation you deserve.


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