Dram shop acts are laws that impose civil liability on a bar or bartender who over serves an intoxicated customer when that customer later injures someone, such as in a drunk driving accident. Unlike many states, Delaware does not have a dram shop act, and the Delaware courts have resisted requests to impose a common law dram shop cause of action.

In 1981, the Delaware Supreme Court decided in the case of Wright v. Moffitt, 437 A.2d 554 (Del. 1981) that a patron does not have a cause of action against a bar owner for injuries the patron suffers as a result of his own intoxication. The reason for the Court’s holding was the lack of a dram shop statute and the lack of a common law dram shop rule.

In 1988, the Delaware Supreme found in DiOssi v. Maroney, 548 A.2d 1361 (Del. 1988) very limited liability against social hosts of a party where a minor was served alcohol and later injured a parking valet working at the party. The DiOssi Court found that liability could be imposed in this situation where the social hosts had a special duty to the injured person since he was a business invitee, and there was evidence that the social hosts knew minors were being served and also driving.

But the DiOssi holding did not expand upon the imposition of liability against servers. In the later cases of Samson v. Smith, 560 A.2d 1024 (Del. 1989) and Oakes v. Megaw, 565 A.2d 914 (Del. 1989), the Court ruled that third parties injured by intoxicated drivers could not hold the bar owners who had served the intoxicated drivers civilly responsible for their injuries. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the intoxicated driver in the Oakes case was a minor, and yet without a dram shop act passed by the General Assembly there was no legal basis to impose civil liability on the establishment who had served the intoxicated minor. The social hosts would still be exposed to criminal liability for violating a criminal statute that prohibits serving alcohol to minors, but the criminal statute is not the basis for civil liability.

The most recent Delaware Supreme Court opinion on the issue was in 2007 in the case of Shea v. Matassa, 918 A.2d 1090 (Del. 2007). Tragically, in the Shea case, an intoxicated motorist who had been served alcohol at a private residence and a bar caused a fatal car crash. The wife of the third party who had died in the collision brought a lawsuit against the private homeowner and the bar owner who had served alcohol to the intoxicated driver. Again, the claims against the social guests were rejected. Without a dram shop law enacted by the General Assembly, there is no legal basis for the Delaware courts to impose civil liability against social hosts, and the person who consumes the alcohol and causes the injury is the sole proximate cause of the injury.

Pennsylvania, like the majority of states, has a dram shop act that imposes civil liability if a bar serves a visibly intoxicated patron and the violation is the proximate cause of the injuries. Pennsylvania’s dram shop act allows for the recovery by or on behalf of the intoxicated patron who was over served by a liquor licensee while visibly intoxicated. It also allows for third parties who are injured in collisions caused by a drunk driver to recover against the bar who over served the intoxicated individual.

Additionally, Pennsylvania courts allow for the imposition of civil liability against social hosts for injuries suffered as a result of serving alcohol to underage minors, see Congini by Congini v. Portersville Valve Co., 470 A.2d 515 (Pa. 1983), but liability will not be imposed against social hosts for injuries arising from serving to adult guests. Klein v. Raysigner, 470 A.2d 507 (Pa. 1983).

Since dram shop and social host laws vary from state to state, if you are injured as a result of a drunk driving incident or by an intoxicated person, it is important to consult with a personal injury attorney who will evaluate your case and inform you of the civil claims available to you to obtain fair compensation for your injuries.

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