A Minnesota judge just sent a stinging reminder to the owners of bars and other licensed liquor establishments in the state when he handed down a $15 million dollar settlement award over a drunk driving incident that killed two children and injured an adult woman. While the drunk driver certainly has responsibility for his actions, the three bars that continued to serve him after he was visibly intoxicated are also being held liable because Minnesota is one of the states that enforces dram shop laws. Learn more about how a bar or other liquor vendor can be held responsible for the wrongful death of someone through another's actions.

What are dram shop laws?

Dram shop laws get their name from the spoonful of gin, or dram, that used to be served in taverns—but they apply to any establishment that has a license to sell liquor. Dram shop laws impose a responsibility on bartenders, servers, and owners to stop serving someone who is visibly intoxicated. The idea is that by the time someone reaches a state of obvious intoxication, he or she is more likely to either get injured or end up injuring someone else.

Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have some form of dram shop law in place, although they vary a bit in their wording and reach.

How do you prove that a vendor should have known to stop serving someone?

In the Minnesota case, the driver admitted to being inebriated when he left the first place he'd been drinking, although he showed no outward signs of being drunk at that time. However, he went to 3 more bars that day before turning the wrong way on a highway and running headfirst into an oncoming car. Each of those 3 bars was held partially responsible for the wrongful deaths of the two children involved because testimony showed that the driver was so drunk he was slurring his words and had difficulty walking—which are clear signs of intoxication.

Why is it important to hold the vendors responsible in these cases?

There's both a moral and a practical reason to hold liquor vendors responsible for the actions of clearly inebriated patrons. Morally, it's because the vendor has the ability to exercise good judgment and prevent an accident from happening. Even if a bartender knows that someone isn't driving, for example, he or she should still stop serving someone who is clearly intoxicated because that person could become a danger to themselves. The drunken patron could step out in front of a moving vehicle, fall down a hillside, or even lie down and fall asleep in the snow. 

The second reason is purely financial. When a wrongful death occurs or someone is seriously injured as a result of a drunk driver, the losses experienced by the surviving family members are often massive—far more than any insurance company owned by a private driver is likely to pay. However, businesses are usually insured far more heavily, which means that they can help make up the difference in the award. That way, survivors are able to be compensated as well as possible.

If you've suffered the loss of a close family member due to a drunken driver and you want to explore the possibility of holding not only the driver but the place that served him or her past the point of obvious intoxication responsible, talk to an attorney like those found at Allison & Rickards, Attorneys at Law, LLC.