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California Dram Shop Law

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"Dram shop" law refers to an area of law governing the provision of alcohol, particularly in cases where the alcohol impairment subsequently leads to an injury or death. There are three primary situations in which Dram Shop law applies:

  • Civil penalties to parents, guardians, or other adults for supplying alcohol to minors.
  • Civil liability of establishments furnishing or persons selling alcohol to "any obviously intoxicated minor."
  • Misdemeanor criminal penalties for establishments or persons supplying alcohol to "any habitual or common drunkard," or "any obviously intoxicated person."

In our experience, Dram Shop law is most often applied when a person or establishment provides alcohol to a minor who is then injured or killed due to the intoxication or causes of the injury or death of another person. In these cases, the person or establishment that furnished the alcohol becomes liable for the damages caused by the incident, including, but not limited to payment for medical treatment, lost wages, pain, and suffering, and loss of life.

Sources and Applications of Dram Shop Law

To learn how we prove a claim under California's Dram Shop law, we need to examine the statues establishing those laws – California Civil Code § 1714, and Business and Professions Code §§ 25602 and 25602.1.

Liability of Private Persons Furnishing Alcohol to Minors

Civil liability of private persons who provide alcohol to minors is governed by California Civil Code § 1714, which provides the following:

  • Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.
  • Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.
  • A claim under this subdivision may be brought by, or on behalf of, the person under 21 years of age or by a person who was harmed by the person under 21 years of age.

As we can see from the statute, California law starts from the premise that a "social host" is not liable for harm to or caused by their guests resulting from the guests' consumption of alcohol. However, there is an exception for furnishing alcohol to minors. Providing alcohol to minors is illegal, and for a good reason. It is an unimaginable tragedy to count children as casualties of preventable accidents, mainly when such tragedy results from an adult failing to take their duties, responsibilities, and common sense seriously.

Having been given the cause of action by Civil Code § 1714, we can derive the essential points one must prove to succeed on a claim of this kind.

  • That the defendant (the person we are suing) was an adult.
  • That the defendant knowingly furnished alcoholic beverages to a minor at the defendant's home.
  • That the defendant knew or should have known that the minor was less than 21 years old at the time.
  • That the plaintiff was harmed by the minor (if the minor is not the same person suing for damages).
  • That the defendant's furnishing alcoholic beverages to the plaintiff or minor was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff's harm.

These elements are collected and codified in the Jury Instruction CACI 427 – Furnishing Alcoholic Beverages to Minors. According to the statute, the minor may sue for his or her own injuries, or a third party may sue for injuries caused by the minor.

A key element in this kind of claim is the defendant furnishing the alcohol to the minor at the defendant's residence. The Court recently upheld this interpretation of the statute:

[T]he exception set forth in subdivision (d) vitiates subdivision (b) for a very narrow class of claims: claims against an adult who knowingly furnishes alcohol at his or her residence to a person he or she knows is under the age of 21. Because respondents are not alleged to have furnished alcohol to [minor] at their residences, plaintiffs' claims against them are barred because, as a matter of statutory law, plaintiffs cannot establish that respondents' actions proximately caused plaintiffs' injuries. [Rybicki v. Carlson (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 758, 764 [157 Cal.Rptr.3d 660].

Another issue is the matter of "furnishing," namely, how does one tell when someone has furnished something to another? The Court addressed this question as follows:

As used in liquor laws, 'furnish' means to provide in any way, and includes giving as well as selling. California courts have interpreted the terms' furnish' and 'furnished' as requiring an affirmative act by the purported furnisher to supply the alcoholic beverage to the drinker." [Fiorini v. City Brewing Co., LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 306, 320–321 [179 Cal.Rptr.3d 827]

In the Fiorini case cited above, the Court held that a beverage manufacturer doesn't "furnish" beverages to consumers. For example, Budweiser does not directly sell alcoholic beverages to consumers. They sell to establishments that sell beverages to consumers and other establishments. Thus, a manufacturer like Budweiser is not liable for damages caused when someone provides one of their drinks to a minor.

Moreover, since the Court has held that "furnishing" requires an "affirmative act," i.e., you must do something, "failure to protest or attempt to stop another from imbibing an alcoholic beverage does not constitute 'furnishing.'" [Bennett v. Letterly (1977) 74 Cal.App.3d 901, 904–905 [141 Cal.Rptr. 682].

Liability of Establishments Furnishing Alcohol to "Obviously Intoxicated Minors"

The liability of establishments furnishing alcohol to obviously intoxicated minors is governed by California Business and Professions Code § 25602.1, which provides as follows:

Notwithstanding subdivision (b) of Section 25602, a cause of action may be brought by or on behalf of any person who has suffered injury or death against any person licensed, or required to be licensed, pursuant to Section 23300, or any person authorized by the federal government to sell alcoholic beverages on a military base or other federal enclave, who sells, furnishes, gives or causes to be sold, furnished or given away any alcoholic beverage, and any other person who sells, or causes to be sold, any alcoholic beverage, to any obviously intoxicated minor where the furnishing, sale or giving of that beverage to the minor is the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained by that person.

To prove a claim of liability under Business and Professions Code § 25602.1, the plaintiff must prove all of the following elements, codified in California Civil Jury Instruction CACI 422:

  • That the defendant was either licensed to sell alcoholic beverages or required to be so licensed (or authorized to by the federal government to sell alcoholic beverages on a military base or other federal enclave).
  • That the defendant sold or gave alcoholic beverages to the minor, or caused alcoholic beverages to be sold or given away to the minor.
  • That minor was less than 21 years old at the time.
  • That when defendant provided the alcoholic beverages, the minor displayed symptoms that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the minor was obviously intoxicated.
  • That the minor harmed the plaintiff (or that the minor was harmed if the minor is the plaintiff).
  • That the defendant's selling or giving alcoholic beverages to the minor was a substantial factor in causing the harm.

CACI 422 provides further guidance on how a reasonable person might conclude that someone was intoxicated:

In deciding whether [the minor] was obviously intoxicated, you may consider whether [the minor] displayed one or more of the following symptoms to [the defendant] before the alcoholic beverages were provided: impaired judgment; alcoholic breath; incoherent or slurred speech; poor muscular coordination; staggering or unsteady walk or loss of balance; loud, boisterous, or argumentative conduct; flushed face; or other symptoms of intoxication. The mere fact that [the minor] had been drinking is not enough.

The instructions explicitly state that it is not enough for the defendant to simply know that the minor had been drinking. In other words, the minor must look and appear drunk to the defendant.

Although California Business and Professions Code § 25602.1 provides liability against those with legal license requirements for sales, Courts have held that it also provides for liability for any party who sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor. (Ennabe v. Manosa (2014) 58 Cal.4th 697, 711 [168 Cal.Rptr.3d 440, 319 P.3d 201]).

Penalties for Persons Furnishing Alcohol to Habitual or Obviously Intoxicated Persons

California law does not provide liability against establishments in cases where the intoxicated party is not a minor. However, the operative statute Business and Professions Code § 25602 provides for misdemeanor criminal liability in such cases:

  • Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.
  • No person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage pursuant to subdivision (a) of this section shall be civilly liable to any injured person or the estate of such person for injuries inflicted on that person as a result of intoxication by the consumer of such alcoholic beverage.
Conclusion

After taking a look at California Dram Shop law, we now know that persons or establishments that provide alcohol to minors, resulting in injuries, can be liable for significant civil and other penalties. We reviewed the statutes providing liability - California Civil Code § 1714, and Business and Professions Code §§ 25602 and 25602.1, and we examined the situations in which this liability occurs – private persons providing alcohol to minors at their residence; persons or establishments selling alcohol to obviously intoxicated minors, and persons or establishments selling alcohol to obviously or habitually intoxicated persons.

Sacramento Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer

I'm Ed Smith, a Sacramento Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer. If you or someone you know need assistance in a matter such as this, please call me at 916-921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.

Our firm has extensive experience handling many types of personal injury matters, including those involving dram shop law. Our stellar staff has litigated and negotiated many such issues, and we are confident that we can bring any dram shop law case to a successful conclusion.

Our office knows that there will never be any amount of money that could compensate a parent for losing a child, or for anyone losing a loved one. However, responsible parties must be held accountable for breaking the law and endangering lives, and that accountability starts with financial compensation.

We are members of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel and the Million Dollar Advocates Forum.

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