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Florida’s Dram Shop Laws: Protecting Drunk Driving Victims

October 16, 2023 Legal Team

As a lawyer who has practiced Personal Injury Law in Sarasota and Bradenton for more than 30 years, I have seen the carnage and injuries caused by drunk drivers. Too often, the intoxicated driver goes to prison and the injured party or the family of a lost loved one is left to pay the bills, pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, or live with unrelenting and unimaginable grief.

Florida law, under certain circumstances, provides an avenue of financial recovery from the liquor establishment that served the alcohol to the inebriated driver. Florida law creates liability on the seller of alcohol if they serve an underage customer, or a person they know to be “habitually addicted to alcohol.” The Florida courts’ interpretation of the statute has been somewhat unclear for many years, however, the Florida Supreme Court has agreed to review a case and provide the definitive law on the bar owners’ responsibility to the victim, and whether they will be permitted to point fingers at other bars or people that may have contributed to the injury.

The case they decided to review, Main Street Entertainment vs., Fairchild, arose from the death of an 18-year-old pedestrian who was catastrophically injured when a pickup truck was driven by a 20-year-old driver who had been served alcohol at a local bar. The underage pedestrian had also been drinking at a different establishment.  The case proceeded against the only bar still in business and insured.  Although the bar that served the underage driver tried to bring in the other bar that served the underage pedestrian, the trial court would not allow it. A verdict was rendered a verdict for the injured teenager and the court ruled that the bar that served the driver was responsible for the full verdict. The case was appealed on the basis that the trial court should have allowed the jury to allocate some of the damages against the second bar, and thereby reduce the insured’s bar liability to the victim. The appellate Court agreed and sent it back to the trial court for a retrial and allow the jury to allocate the percentage of fault on the second bar. The matter is now on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

One thing is for certain. The bar or establishment that serves an underage driver, or an adult who is “habitually addicted to alcohol,” can be held liable for the full measure of the damages suffered by the victim, if the establishment willfully served a minor who caused the accident and injuries, or they “knowingly” served someone they should have known was habitually addicted to alcohol.  

The Supreme Court’s decision will decide whether a jury can apportion responsibility on multiple parties, or if a bar violates Florida law, they are wholly responsible for the damages caused by the person they served.

There are always those who would disagree with the idea that a bar can and should be held responsible for the horror and grief caused by a drunk driver.  I can tell you when you are faced with catastrophic injuries and/or unrelenting grief, people feel differently. Ask yourself if I was severely injured or lost someone because a bar served a minor or someone they knew was habitually addicted to alcohol, how would I feel? What is important to know is that it is not only necessary to drink responsibly, but to serve responsibly as well.

Florida’s Dram Shop Law Basics

Florida’s dram shop laws are governed by the Florida Statutes Section 768.125. According to this statute, alcohol vendors can be held liable for injuries or damages caused by intoxicated individuals if the following conditions are met:

  1. Sale to a minor: If an alcohol vendor sells alcohol to a minor under the age of 21, and that minor subsequently causes harm to others due to their intoxication, the vendor can be held liable.
  2. Sale to a habitual drunkard: If an alcohol vendor knowingly sells alcohol to a person habitually addicted to alcohol, and that person later injures others because of their intoxication, the vendor can also be held responsible.
  3. Overserving: Florida’s dram shop law applies not only to sales but also to the act of overserving alcohol. If an alcohol vendor continues to serve an already visibly intoxicated patron, and that patron causes harm to others, the vendor may be held liable.

The Role of “Proximate Cause”

In Florida’s dram shop laws, the concept of “proximate cause” plays a crucial role in determining liability. Proximate cause refers to the direct link between the vendor’s actions and the harm caused by the intoxicated individual. To establish proximate cause, several factors must be considered:

  1. Foreseeability: It must be foreseeable that serving alcohol to a minor or a habitual drunkard, or overserving a visibly intoxicated patron, could lead to harm to others.
  2. Causation: There should be a clear causal link between the vendor’s actions and the resulting harm. In other words, it must be demonstrated that the harm would not have occurred if the vendor had not provided alcohol to the intoxicated individual.

Implications for Alcohol Vendors

Florida’s dram shop laws carry significant implications for alcohol vendors, including bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Vendors must exercise due diligence in checking the age of customers and their level of intoxication. Failing to do so could result in legal liability and potentially substantial financial consequences.

Moreover, alcohol vendors are encouraged to provide training to their staff on responsible alcohol service. This can include recognizing signs of intoxication, knowing when to refuse service, and understanding the potential consequences of overserving. Such training not only helps prevent harm but also shields vendors from liability if they can demonstrate that they took reasonable steps to comply with the law.

Florida’s dram shop laws play a significant role in promoting responsible alcohol service and holding alcohol vendors accountable for their actions. These laws aim to reduce alcohol-related accidents and injuries by discouraging the sale of alcohol to minors, habitual drunkards, and overserving patrons. While they have their supporters and critics, there is no denying their importance in addressing the complex issues surrounding alcohol consumption and its consequences in the Sunshine State. Ultimately, the goal is to strike a balance between individual responsibility and the duty of alcohol vendors to protect the safety and well-being of their communities.