Social Host Liability and Dram Shop Injuries Occur During Holiday Season in Boston

It is fairy easy to assign fault when an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel and causes a serious or even fatal Boston drunk driving accident. However, there is the more complex issue of whether a bar or social host that served the alcohol was also responsible for the injuries caused by the drunk driver.  In Boston, a legal claim against a social host or a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol is called a dram shop lawsuit.

Boston Drunk Driving AccidentsThe term dram shop comes from the old British term for what is roughly equivalent to a shot of alcohol.  In the old days, factory workers were often given a “dram break” so they could go drink a dram of gin or whiskey supplied by the company as a perk to workers. During the 2017-2018 holiday season, there is a fairly high probability you were invited to an office holiday, or a gathering at the home of friends and family in the Greater Boston area. There is also a high probability that alcohol was being served at these holiday parties. This undoubtedly means there were many more drunk drivers on the road and that likely resulted in serious or even fatal drunk driving crashes.

With respect to office parties serving alcohol, these could be held at the place of employment itself, or they can held at a local restaurant or other venue.  In 2017, there may have been less drinking at holiday parties since many employers were reportedly concerned about there many recent sexual harassment and sexual abuse allegations that have been reported at the end of 2017 so there was push to not have alcohol at company-sponsored events. It is somewhat interesting that fear of having a sexual harassment incident in their company is causing much more concern than increasing the odds of fatal drunk driving crash, but many companies are not thinking in terms of dram shop lawsuits.

As our Boston dram shop liability lawyers can explain, in Massachusetts, the law prohibits the serving of alcohol to a person who is noticeably intoxicated.  This can involve any number of defendants.  For example, if a drunk person stumbles into a liquor store on Boylston Street in downtown Boston and tries to purchase more alcohol, the store is required to decline the sale to this noticeably intoxicated person. If they serve more alcohol, it is possible they could be liable under the dram shop law.

These cases tend to happen more frequently at bars and restaurants, but we included the example of a liquor store, because it shows the broad range of the law. A social host can also be held liable and this is more of shock.  Bars, restaurants, and liquor store owners and their employees generally undergo training on the safe sale of alcohol and are told they could be held liable for foreseeable tortious actions of a drunk person to whom they serve more alcohol.  Homeowners who throw a holiday party, on the hand, may not be aware of the concept of dram shop liability, but ignorance of the law is never a defense in civil or criminal court.

Adamian v. Three Sons Inc.

In Adamian v. Three Sons Inc., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) first recognized the concept of dram shop liability in our state.  In this case, defendant owned a roadside restaurant. The court concluded defendant engaged in active attempts to get motorists to come to the restaurant and even constructed an oversized parking lot to accommodate all of the cars. There was no question that the majority of customers would be driving to the restaurant and then driving home following eating and drinking.

On the date of the accident, defendant was intoxicated and was not cutoff at this point as the staff continued to serve him alcoholic beverages. When he eventually left the establishment, heavily intoxicated, he got behind the wheel of his car and soon crashed into plaintiff’s car.  Plaintiff filed claims against drunk driver, but also the restaurant.

The reason a plaintiff would want to also file a dram shop claim against the restaurant owner is because the damages in a serious Boston drunk driving accident often surpass the maximum at-fault driver’s insurance company will payout under the policy limits.  In some of the worst cases, defendant will have something like $20,000 to $40,000 in coverage when plaintiff has suffered hundreds of thousands in personal injury when we consider the medical bills alone.

In these situations, having the bar as a defendant likely means we are dealing with a company that has a much higher level of insurance to cover their employee’s negligence, cash and other assets that can pay a judgement.  None of this is to say that at-fault drunk driver is not liable, it is just that the bar is also liable and better suited to pay a settlement or judgement in many cases.

In Three Sons Inc., the question for the court was whether the law that prohibited serving an intoxicated person was created to prevent the type of harm that occurred in this case. Under one interpretation, the law was only created to safeguard the person drinking and prevent them from injuring themselves.  Once the court examined the legislative history, however, the court determined that being involved in an auto accident with innocent third persons was very much on the minds of the drafters of this law and that was the primary reason it was created – to safeguard the general public from harm caused by drunk drivers.

This law has been expanded over the years, but a lot of it remains similar to when the dram shop tort was first recognized. There are also cases in which the person who was over-served became intoxicated and then injured themselves in car accident.  In these cases, it is the drunk driver who attempts to sue the drinking established that served the alcohol.  While it may be possible to bring such a claim, the issue often comes down to comparative negligence. In our jurisdiction, if the plaintiff is more negligent than the defendant, the plaintiff cannot recover.  Whether the plaintiff is more negligent than the defendant must be evaluated on a case by case basis as the facts are never exactly the same.

If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston drunk driving accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Adamanian v. Three Sons, Inc., Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (1986)

More Blog Entries:

Massachusetts Drugged Driving a Serious Problem, Police Say , March 28, 2017, DUI Injury Lawyer Blog