Dram Shop Liability In Tennessee

A family has filed a lawsuit against Luau Louie’s Hula Hut in connection with the death of their son. They alleged the Hula Hut sold alcohol to a minor who drank too much, crashed his vehicle in a car accident, killing his passenger.

Dram Shop Law in Tennessee

Under the common law, a bar or restaurant selling alcohol was not liable for injuries sustained by the actions of persons who had become intoxicated on their premises. The law viewed the “cause” of the injury to be the actions of the drunk driver, not the actions of the bar simply serving alcohol to the intoxicated person.

In Tennessee, the Legislature codified the common law rule into a statute, 57-10-101. The section reads:

“The general assembly hereby finds and declares that the 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.”

This means generally that a bar is not liable for the actions of patrons who become intoxicated and cause damage or injury to other people.

However, as with many Tennessee laws, there are exceptions. Two to be exact, which are described in the next section, 57-10-102. The first part of the section notes that no damages may be awarded unless the seller of the alcohol was, beyond a reasonable doubt, the proximate cause of the injury or death.

“Proximate cause” means the legal cause of the harm, which has been defined by the Tennessee Supreme Court as “a three-pronged test.” The person’s conduct must have been a “substantial factor” in bringing about the harm, they cannot have been excused from liability by some “rule or policy” and the harm must have been foreseeable.

The next part of the section lists the two exceptions:

“(1) Sold the alcoholic beverage or beer to a person known to be under the age of twenty-one (21) years and such person caused the personal injury or death as the direct result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage or beer so sold; or

(2) Sold the alcoholic beverage or beer to a visibly intoxicated person and such person caused the personal injury or death as the direct result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage or beer so sold.”

A High Bar

The Tennessee Legislature has set a high bar for liability that protects most sellers of alcohol. If a lawsuit is brought against a bar or other seller of alcohol, the business is entitled to a 12-person jury and the burden of proof is the same as it is in a criminal case, beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than the typical preponderance of the evidence standard for other civil cases.

In the case mentioned above involving the underage drunk driver, the family is claiming the bar sold alcohol to a minor. To win this type of case, they will have to show that the defendant bar or restaurant knew the driver was younger than 21-years-old when it sold him the alcohol. It is also necessary to prove that the alcohol the bar sold was the proximate cause of the injury. This means the alcohol purchased at the Hula Hut must be shown to have brought about the intoxication and resulted in the injuries or death, and not some additional alcohol that McMurry may have consumed.

Having A Party in Tennessee?

57-10-102 explicitly uses the term “sold,” and this is done to exclude non-sellers, i.e. one who is not a liquor store, bar or restaurant. A host at a party generally has no liability for guests who become intoxicated under the dram shop law. However, this does not eliminate all possibility of a lawsuit against someone who has a party and provides alcoholic drinks to their guests.

The courts have developed a complex and involved test under general negligence standards to determine if a “special relationship” exists between the person furnishing the alcohol and the person intoxicated. However, this relationship would probably be limited to circumstances involving supplying alcohol to a minor.

Based on existing Tennessee case law, it appears that if a social host provides free alcohol to guests, knows that some of the guests are minors and then allow the minors to become intoxicated, they potentially could be held liable for injuries those minors cause, should they attempt to drive after becoming intoxicated.

If you have been injured or a family member has been killed in a drunk driving accident, it is a complex and fact-specific analysis that must be done to ascertain potentially responsible parties. An experienced personal injury attorney can examine the facts of your case and help you determine if compensation is available and the possible sources.