Expert Tampa car accident attorneys at Lorenzo & Lorenzo explain Florida’s dram shop law
Imagine this scenario: In Florida, a young bartender is new on the job. A regular customer walks in who’s been bar hopping for several hours. The bartender doesn’t notice anything peculiar about the customer’s behavior and has no knowledge of the customer being habitually drunk at the bar.
The bartender serves the customer a drink, then another. After 2 drinks, the customer leaves, crashes his car into another car and kills the other driver. The driver who caused the accident is found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.195, more than twice the legal limit.
In such a case, does the bar hold any responsibility for the drunk driver’s actions, or does the blame rest solely on the intoxicated person?
Most bar owners would argue that individuals are responsible for their own actions, but often there are circumstances where the bar (or even a social host) can be held partially responsible.
Drunk driving fatality statistics
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2020 alone, 11,654 people died in alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes in the United States. That rate is 1 death every 45 minutes, which is an increase from the previous year.
The Florida experience is comparable to the national statistics. In 2019, the Florida percentage of total alcohol-related traffic deaths was 25%. The national percentage was 28. Florida also had more than 800 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2019 compared to 10,142 nationally.
Liability in alcohol-related car crashes
In an ordinary personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and that the plaintiff failed that duty. Further, they must prove that the defendant’s actions (negligence or willful conduct) were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury or death.
Finding proximate cause in a case of a bartender serving alcohol to an impaired customer can be a challenge. A linkage between the service and a customer’s subsequent actions is not always clear.
State laws differ as to the standards for the bartender’s evaluation of a customer’s condition, the degree of due diligence required and the statutory specificity of those standards. However, some states do allow an intoxicated customer to sue a bar for knowingly serving them while intoxicated.
What are dram shop laws?
The term “dram shop law” draws its name from the 18th century when alcohol (particularly gin) was sold in units called “drams.” Dram shop laws were introduced in the United States in the 19th century during the temperance movement that eventually led to Prohibition.
By definition, dram shop laws are state regulations that hold sellers of alcoholic beverages accountable for the careless actions of their drunk patrons. These laws give victims of a drunk driving accident the ability to pursue legal action against a 3rd party, such as a bar or social host, who served alcohol to the intoxicated individual.
Today, 42 states and Washington D.C. have a variation of a dram shop law that holds a bar or bartender liable for consequences if they serve or sell alcohol to a visibly impaired customer or a minor.
The only 8 states that don’t currently impose these laws are:
- South Dakota
Florida’s dram shop law
Florida has a very restrictive dram shop law, which was adopted in 1980. Florida Statutes §788.125 provides that:
“A person who sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person of lawful drinking age shall not thereby become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such person, except that a person who willfully and unlawfully sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person who is not of lawful drinking age or who knowingly serves a person habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such minor or person.”
In other words, in our Florida example above, the bartender or bar is not liable for the wrongful death of the other driver unless the customer was underage or the bartender knew that the adult customer was habitually addicted to alcohol. Neither of these requirements existed. Therefore, the relatives of the deceased driver do not have a cause of action against the bar or bartender.
Unlike many states, an establishment, vendor or social host can’t be held responsible in Florida for serving alcohol to a person who already appears to be intoxicated. These parties would only be liable if they served alcohol to a known habitually addicted person or a minor.
It’s also important to note that Florida’s dram law doesn’t hold social hosts responsible for damages that result from serving alcohol to someone at a private party or event, even if the host was aware that the person is “habitually addicted.”
The surviving relatives or estate of the deceased driver in our example does, however, have a wrongful death claim against the drunk driver. Also, a third party might be a target of a lawsuit.
Proving a dram shop claim
In most states, the standard of proof for a successful dram shop case is high. In an ordinary personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove the elements of the case by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the jury must find that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.
However, some state dram shop laws require the plaintiff to prove liability with “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a higher standard than “preponderance of the evidence.”
Florida’s law, by statute, requires the plaintiff to prove that the adult customer was a habitual alcoholic and that the bar knew it.
Time limits and compensation
If a DUI victim wants to file a claim against a bar or other establishment, they must do so within 2 years of the accident. Otherwise, the statute of limitations expires, and they will be unable to receive compensation.
If you decide to file a dram shop claim (or civil claim), you may be eligible for the following types of compensation:
- Medical expenses related to your injuries, including hospitalization, therapy, medication and rehabilitation
- Lost wages
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering
Additionally, victims of drunk driving accidents may also be awarded punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar behavior in the future.
A closer look at noteworthy cases under dram shop laws
Here are a few examples of notable dram shop cases.
Alabama dram shop case
In 2007, an intoxicated underage driver crashed, and a 13-year-old passenger was killed. The mother of the underage driver filed a dram shop lawsuit against the convenience store that sold alcohol to her daughter.
The jury awarded the mother of the deceased 13-year-old damages of $7 million. Since the convenience store sold the alcohol to a minor, the plaintiffs did not have to prove many elements that would have been required if the driver were an adult.
St Louis, Illinois strip club
In 2010, a husband and wife truck driving team was hit head-on by a drunk driver driving the wrong way on a westbound lane of an Illinois highway. The wife was killed, and the husband was permanently disabled.
The drunk driver had been drinking at a strip club where he was served while he was visibly intoxicated.
The husband sued the strip club for his personal injuries and his wife’s wrongful death. Under Illinois dram shop law, the plaintiff must prove that the establishment continued to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated customer who subsequently caused harm.
The jury awarded the plaintiff damages of $37.5 million.
Florida dram shop case
In 2014, a Florida jury awarded a plaintiff $11 million in damages under the restrictive dram shop law. The plaintiff was permanently disabled while riding his motorcycle after he was hit by an intoxicated 72-year-old man.
The 72-year-old man was severely intoxicated after drinking at a club. Witnesses testified that he was already intoxicated when the club served him. The jury found that the customer was known to be habitually addicted to alcohol.
The case was appealed, but the issue of the man’s habitual addiction has not been challenged.
Another Florida dram shop case
In 2015, a South Florida family lost a daughter, and their son was severely injured by a drunk driver. The family sued for wrongful death and personal injury.
Under the Florida dram shop law, the defendants included The Corner, a Miami bar, which served alcohol to the intoxicated driver during a company Christmas party. The jury returned an award of $95 million, one of the largest dram shop awards ever granted.
Record Corpus Christi dram shop verdict
In 2017, a Corpus Christ jury awarded $301 billion to plaintiffs in a dram shop case. After drinking at Beer Belly’s bar, Delbosque, an intoxicated customer left the bar and, shortly thereafter, ran a red light and killed a grandmother and her teenage grandchild.
Delbosque’s blood alcohol level was 0.263, and it was determined that he had 11 drinks at the bar before leaving.
The huge award is not likely to stand on appeal. However, the jury could only render an award if they held, as a fact, that the bar knew or should have known that Delbosque was intoxicated while they continued to serve him.
The bar is unable to pay the award, and it’s likely that the award will be substantially reduced on appeal.
Contact an experienced Tampa DUI accident attorney
If you or someone you know has suffered a loss or injury due to a drunk driving accident in the Tampa area, contact an expert DUI accident attorney at Lorenzo & Lorenzo. Our attorneys will help you understand Florida’s dram shop law and how it can impact your case.
At Lorenzo & Lorenzo, our experienced personal injury and wrongful death attorneys have a proven record of success helping people in Tampa get the compensation they deserve after an accident involving a drunk driver. Your initial consultation is always free, and we won’t charge you a fee unless we win your case.