Drunk Driving Crashes – We Sue Bars and Restaurants When They Over-Serve Patrons Who Then Drive Drunk and Cause Injury and Death

Washington State has the dubious “honor” of being ranked among the worst offenders for the percentage of automobile accidents caused by intoxicated drivers, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).[1]  In fact, public data indicates that there are thousands of  three-time DUI offenders residing in Washington State.

Due to the prevalence of drunk driving car wrecks, the Washington state legislature joined approximately 40 other states in enacting a “Dram Shop” law.[2]  A dram shop law is a state statute that creates civil liability for businesses that sell alcoholic beverages to intoxicated customers.  Under dram shop law, restaurants, bars, pubs, and other establishments can be held civilly liable for selling, furnishing, and/or serving alcohol to intoxicated customers if the person thereafter operates a vehicle while intoxicated and injures or kills someone.

Overview of Washington Dram Shop Law and Social Host Liability

Prior to the state legislature enacting a dram shop law, it was not possible to file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit against a bar, restaurant, or other establishment as a result of a vehicle crash caused by an intoxicated patron.  That prohibition was changed with the passage of RCW § 66.44.200 and RCW § 66.44.270, which now collectively serve as the basis for Washington dram shop law.

Two Types of Dram Shop Cases in Washington

In Washington State, there are two types of dram shop cases: (i) first-party dram cases and (ii) third-party dram cases.

A first-party dram shop case can be pursued when a drinking establishment (such as a bar) or a liquor store sells or serves alcohol to a minor and the drunk minor suffers bodily harm as a result of consuming alcohol purchased or sold.

A third-party dram shop cases arises when a drinking establishment sells alcohol to an already-intoxicated person, and that person then causes injury or death to someone else.  A prime example of a third-party dram shop case involves a bar continuing to serve alcohol to an intoxicated customer, and that person drives drunk, seriously injuring or killing someone else.

Simple Rules that Business Establishments Serving Alcohol Must Follow in Washington

Bars and restaurants that possess liquor licenses are required to follow a set of simple rules when serving patrons alcohol.  Those rules include:

  • Not serving someone when the establishment knows, or should know, that the patron is intoxicated,
  • If a patron becomes intoxicated, the establishment has a duty to cut the patron off and secure a safe ride home; and
  • Not serving alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.

Business establishments licensed to sell liquor to patrons in Washington State are legally required to train their employees to recognize signs of intoxication, which can include:

  • Slurred and slow speech
  • Speech that does not make sense
  • Slow reaction time
  • Inability to maintain balance or to walk in a straight line
  • Watery eyes
  • Suddenly becoming aggressive or engaging in other inappropriate behavior
  • Inability to leave the establishment without assistance

In addition to these signs, server should also recognize that a person will become intoxicated solely by the number and type of alcoholic beverages they are consuming.

Washington State Social Host Liability Laws vs. Washington Dram Shop Laws

Social Host Liability Laws specify the circumstances under which a social host (like a person throwing a party at their house) may be liable for a drunk driving accident.  There are two main differences between Washington Dram Shop Law and Washington Social Host Liability Laws.  First – dram shop laws refer only to establishments, stores, and individuals that sell alcoholic beverages to the public.  Social host liability laws, on the other hand, cover individuals who privately serve alcoholic beverages to invited guests (and not to the general public).

Second, social host liability is limited to situations in which the host serves alcohol to a person under the age of 21.  Hosts will generally not be liable under the Washington Social Host Liability Laws if they serve alcohol to an adult, and such person later injures others.

Prevailing in a Dram Shop Injury Case

In a dram shop injury case, the plaintiff (the person injured, or their family, if the injured person died) will have the burden of proving that the bar or establishment continued to serve the drunk driver after that person was already intoxicated.   As lawyers for drunk driving crash victims  and their families, we will want to carefully investigate how the driver causing the crash became drunk, and what their blood-alcohol content (BAC) was immediately after a crash.

As an example, if we learn that the drunk driver had a BAC over the legal limit and that they left a bar a few minutes before causing a crash, a strong case can be made that they were probably served alcohol after they were already intoxicated.  To make a case against the bar for dram shop liability, we can also learn who the driver may have been drinking with, depose such people (take their testimony under oath) to learn about how much the driver had consumed, and subpoena video that may have been taken by the bar. We can also subpoena bar receipts, which will list the beverages served on a ticket, to further show how much the person likely drank.

In some cases, jurors may be able to see video of drivers stumbling out of a bar, obviously intoxicated, as they pass by bar employees.  They can also hear from the driver’s friends about how much the driver had to drink, and if bar waiters and waitresses continued to serve drinks to the driver even though there were visibly intoxicated.  Jurors can also see the receipts listing the beverages served and consumed.  This type of evidence can constitute strong proof against a bar.

Seeking to Gather and Preserve Evidence as Soon as Possible After a Crash

Some types of evidence can disappear quickly.  Video taken in a bar can be deleted or recorded over.  The memories of witnesses and servers can fade.  Vehicles involved in a crash (and the “black box” event recorders in such vehicles) can be destroyed at junk yards.  For these reasons, it is important to conduct an investigation as soon as possible after a drunk driving crash occurs to preserve important evidence.

As a result, if you or a family member has been injured by a drunk driver, or if a family member has been killed by a drunk driver, you should seek an experienced drunk driving injury lawyer as soon as possible after the crash.

What Types of Damages Can Be Obtained in a Dram Shop Claim?

The type of financial compensation involved in a dram shop case is essentially the same type of financial compensation that can be obtained against the drunk driver, such as:

  • Medical bills, including past costs and the likely future costs;
  • Lost income, including past loss and loss of future earning capacity;
  • Past and anticipated future pain and suffering;
  • Reimbursement for property damage;
  • Damages arising from a wrongful death.

Can I Sue Both a Bar and a Drunk Driver for Causing a Crash?

Yes.  In a case against a bar (a dram shop case) and a drunk driver, a jury would need to allocate liability between the bar and the drunk driver, and the liability for each of them would then be determined by multiplying the percent liability allocated by the total damages.

As an example, assume that a jury finds that an injury victim incurred $500,000 in damages, and that the drunk driver is 80% liable, and the bar is 20% liable.  In this case, the drunk driver would be liable for $400,000, and the bar would be liable for $100,000.

Will Insurance Cover Dram Shop Liability?

Typically, bars and establishments that serve alcohol will maintain (or be required under law to obtain) Liquor Legal Liability insurance.  Liquor Legal Liability Insurance provides coverage to bars, restaurants, and other establishments that serve alcohol for any liability that they may incur arising out of the sale of alcoholic beverages to intoxicated patrons.

This insurance is often helpful, as in many instances drunk drivers may not be insured, or they may not have sufficient insurance to cover the damages for which they are liable.  If a jury finds that a bar or establishment is liable, the Liquor Legal Liability Insurance obtained by the establishment may provide at least some level of coverage for the injured victim (or the victim’s family).

For more information, please see “How Insurance Impacts a Personal Injury Case

Take Action Today – Contact an Experienced Washington Dram Shop Lawyer

If you or a family member suffered serious bodily injury due to an intoxicated person’s negligent or reckless actions, please contact us to find out whether you may have dram shop case in addition to being able bring a lawsuit against the drunk driver and others legally responsible.

We offer a free, no-obligation case review, which allows you to tell us what happened, and affords us the opportunity to learn about your case. If you retain our firm, we will represent you on a contingency fee basis.  This means that you pay us nothing upfront and we only get paid if and when a financial award is secured on your behalf.  And, as a full-service personal injury law firm, we will advance the costs of your litigation.


[1] See https://www.madd.org/state-statistics/ to find out more about how MADD rates states for drunk driving laws.

[2] The term “dram” refers to a small drink of whiskey or other alcoholic spirit.  In colonial times, bars and taverns that served “drams” were also known as “dram shops”.  Today, laws that allow bars, taverns, restaurants, and other establishments to be held liable when they over-serve drunk patrons who then cause injury or death are known as “dram shop laws.”

Do I Have a Case?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Submission of this form does not establish an attorney-client privilege. No action will be taken to protect your interests until the firm has agreed to represent you.