If an intoxicated customer leaves a bar and causes a wreck which injures several others, who is liable? Only the drunk driver, or also the bar that sold him alcohol? Tennessee “dram shop” laws address this question by outlining when a business is responsible for off-premise harm caused by intoxicated customers. Read below to find out when a restaurant, bar, or retailer is responsible for harm caused by drunk patrons.
General rule: Consumer responsibility
The general rule in Tennessee is that liquor-serving establishments are not responsible for third-party injuries caused by intoxicated individuals. Selling alcohol to a customer does not make a business automatically liable for the customer’s actions. Tennessee Code Annotated § 57-10-101 states:
“[T]he consumption of any alcoholic beverage or beer rather than the furnishing of any alcoholic beverage or beer is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.” (Emphasis added).
In other words, any harm caused by an intoxicated person will generally be attributed to that person only. Each individual is responsible for his or her alcohol consumption, as well as his or her actions while drunk. Under most circumstances, a business will not incur liability simply through the sale of alcohol.
However, there are a couple of major exceptions to the general rule: sale of alcohol to an underage drinker, and sale of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. If a business furnishes alcohol to a customer who falls into one of these categories, the business may be responsible for harm that the customer causes.
The first category is the underage drinker. In Tennessee, businesses serving alcohol are required to perform ID checks on customers who look younger than 50. A business which serves alcohol to a minor will be responsible for any harm that the minor causes while intoxicated. For example, if an underage drinker injures someone in a wreck, the establishment that sold liquor to the minor may be liable for the victim’s damages.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-10-102 states that a business must have “sold the alcoholic beverage or beer to a person known to be under the age of twenty-one (21) years” in order to shoulder liability for injuries caused by the intoxicated minor. (Emphasis added).
The statute requires that the business knew the minor to be underage at the time of sale. Therefore, a minor using a fake ID may be liable for the entirety of any injuries he causes. However, if a business serves a minor without checking the minor’s ID, the business might incur liability.
The other exception for dram shop liability is visible intoxication. If a business serves or sells alcohol to an individual who is already visibly intoxicated, the business will be responsible for any injuries caused by the customer.
The “visible intoxication” exception is harder to prove than that of the underage drinker. Some drinkers display far fewer visible effects of intoxication than others. Serving staff may be uncertain as to when a customer is intoxicated, particularly when the customer has been drinking elsewhere.
There is little Tennessee case precedent defining “visible intoxication” in this context. However, businesses may instruct their serving staff to monitor customers’ drinking, and to cut off a customer before he or she becomes animatedly drunk.
Plaintiff’s burden of proof
To establish a business’ liability under Tennessee dram shop laws, a plaintiff must prove two things:
- That the business’ sale of the alcoholic beverage was the proximate cause of the victim’s injury or death; AND
- That the customer was either a minor or visibly intoxicated at the time of sale.
According to Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-10-102, the plaintiff must prove both of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. This imposes the highest standard burden of proof standard upon such plaintiffs.
More about TN dram shop laws
- The exceptions to Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-10-102 only impose liability for injured third parties. If the intoxicated customer injures himself, he cannot recover damages from the business which furnished him alcohol. Montgomery ex rel. Montgomery v. Kali Orexi, LLC, 303 S.W.3d 281 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009)
- The exceptions to Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-10-102 do not apply if a customer was not actually served by staff. If one customer orders, pays for, and is served a drink, and then gives it to another, the business will not be liable for any injuries caused by the drinking individual, as the staff were not on notice to monitor the individual’s intoxication. Widner v. Chattanooga Entm’t, Inc., No. E2013-00192-COA-R3-CV, 2014 Tenn. App. LEXIS 65 (Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2014)
For more information about Tennessee’s dram shop laws, call the Nashville personal injury attorneys at David Randolph Smith & Associates.