New York State’s Dram Shop Laws: Third Party Liability for Alcohol-Related Injuries
Most U.S. states have enacted a dram shop law on one kind or another, and New York is no exception. If you were injured through the wrongful behavior of another person, you are entitled to assert a personal injury claim against that person. In many cases, voluntary intoxication will provide all the legal ammunition you need to press a strong claim for damages.
A problem arises, however, when the perpetrator of the accident is too poor to pay damages and he is either uninsured or underinsured. In this situation, New York’s dram shop laws might allow you to file a claim against an alcohol vendor who provided the alcohol to the defendant.
Elements of a Dram Shop Claim
To win damages against a third party for injury or death caused by the intoxication of another person, you must prove:
- you were injured;
- the person who injured you was intoxicated at the time;
- an alcohol vendor sold alcohol to the intoxicated person;
- at the time of the sale, the intoxicated person was (i) “actually or apparently” under 21, (ii) visibly intoxicated or (iii) known as a habitual drunkard to the alcohol provider; and
- the vendor’s sale of alcohol to the intoxicated person either caused or contributed to the intoxication that led to the accident that injured you.
Scope of the Law
The scope of the New York dram shop law is not limited to DUI accidents. You can sue an intoxicated person who fell into you and knocked you down a flight of stairs, for example, or even a drunk who intentionally assaulted you due to his intoxication. The law’s usefulness in the event of an intentional assault is noteworthy, because many insurance policies do not cover such acts.
An intoxicated person cannot sue the alcohol vendor for his own injuries, And if the intoxicated person is killed in the accident, survivors cannot file wrongful death lawsuit against the alcohol vendor. The law is also subject to limitations on the ability of “drinking buddies” to file claims on this basis.
Two forms of causation must be proven in a dram shop law claim:
- The patron’s intoxication must have been substantially caused by the vendor or social host’s provision of alcohol to the patron.
- The patron must have been intoxicated at the time of the accident, and his intoxication must have been a substantial cause of the accident.
New York law also allows victims of an accident caused by a drunken patron to recover against the alcohol vendor for property damage caused by the accident.
If the victim of the accident dies as a result of the accident, the personal representative of the deceased victim’s probate estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit against both the patron and the vendor who provided the alcohol. Damage awards are similar to the amount that the victim could have received if he had lived after the accident and filed a personal injury lawsuit.
Exemplary damages are extra damages for outrageous behavior by the defendant that are awarded in addition to ordinary compensatory damages. Although exemplary damages can be awarded against an alcohol vendor who serves a visibly intoxicated patron who later causes an injury accident, they are not allowed for serving a minor who was not visibly intoxicated.
Liability of Social Hosts and Others
New York law also holds social hosts, such as party hosts, liable for providing alcohol to guests under the age of 21. This also applies for assisting someone under the age of 21 in obtaining alcohol (buying it for him at a liquor store, for example), if the provider knew or had reasonable cause to believe that the person seeking alcohol was under 21.
Ambiguity: “Knowledge or Reasonable Cause to Believe”
The term “reasonable cause to believe” suggests that a defendant can be liable for providing alcohol to a minor even if he didn’t know that the minor was under 21. But what is “reasonable cause”? Would a defendant be justified in providing alcohol to a minor who presented a fake ID? What if the ID was an obvious fake?
Ambiguity: “Visibly Intoxicated”
The term “visibly intoxicated” is another ambiguous term that could determine whether or not a defendant is held liable (or whether he settles privately out of fear of losing in court). How obvious does a patron’s intoxication have to be to impose an obligation not to serve him? Note that an alcohol vendor may not sell alcohol to a minor – even if he is not intoxicated.
Ambiguity: “Habitual Drunkard”
“Habitual drunkard” is yet another ambiguous term that can complicate a dram shop claim. If the patron was not intoxicated but he was a “regular” at the establishment, does that fact alone qualify him as a “habitual drunkard”? How often does the patron have to become intoxicated before the vendor becomes responsible for knowing that the patron is a habitual drunkard?
How Legal Ambiguities Affect a Dram Shop Claim
An ambiguity in the text of a law invites lawyers to fight over its interpretation in light of the facts of that particular case. Often, it is the side with the better lawyer that wins the debate, which is all the more reason to choose your legal counsel with care.
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At E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, our reputation speaks louder than we do. The U.S. News has listed us as a top-tier Albany law firm each year since 2011. Additionally, several of our individual attorneys have been awarded the following honors, among others:
- Top rankings on the prominent legal ratings service AVVO
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- Membership in America’s Top 100 Attorneys
If you have been injured in an alcohol-related incident in Troy or if your loved one died in such an accident, you may be entitled to substantial compensation even without the involvement of a third-party vendor or socal host. Contact us today to schedule a free initial consultation over the phone, at our office in Troy, at one of our other offices, or at some other location.