Dram Shop Liability and the New Jersey Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act

Dram shop liability holds licensed bars, restaurants, and other establishments responsible for negligent service of alcoholic beverages. Such liability started out within the common law, but has since been codified in New Jersey with the passage of the Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act. N.J.S.A. 2A:22A-5; Steele v. Kerrigan, 148 N.J. 1, 15 (1997). 

The statute intended “to protect the rights of persons who suffer loss as a result of the negligent service of alcoholic beverages by a licensed alcoholic beverage server….” N.J.S.A. 2A:22A-2; Steele, 148 N.J. at 15. Accordingly, under the statute, one who sustains personal injury or property damage as a result of the negligent serving of alcoholic beverages may sue the server if three conditions are met.

First, the server must be considered negligent. This can be shown in one of two ways. One such way requires the establishment serve a visibly intoxicated person. The intoxicated person must display some symptom of intoxication: stumbling, slurred speech, etc. An individual may be highly intoxicated, but if he or she is not noticeably drunk to the server, dram shop liability will not ensue. Even if one admits they were drunk after the fact, this alone will not create liability for the establishment. See Felegi v. Grille, No. A-0289-15T3, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1565 (Super. Ct. App. Div. June 26, 2017)

The other such way to demonstrate negligent service arises where the establishment serves a minor. The minor who causes an injury need not necessarily be drunk under the statute in order to impose liability under the statute.

The second condition that must be present requires the damage or injury find its proximate cause in the negligent service of alcohol. It will not suffice that one has a few drinks and causes damage, there must be some causal connection between the two.

Lastly, the injury or damage must be a “foreseeable consequence of the negligent serving of alcoholic beverages.” This is not typically a high bar to satisfy because “taverns are natural hot beds of violence,” and as one nineteenth-century court clearly and colorfully described, alcohol is “a stimulus highly promotive of brawls, affrays, riots and all other crimes.” Steele, 148 N.J. at 26; Underhill v. City of Manchester, 45 N.H. 214, 216-18 (1864).

Thus, “without question, the occasional assault by a belligerent drunk is a foreseeable consequence of serving alcohol.” Steele, 148 N.J. at 26. For instance, in Cassanello, a bar served two men who were visibly intoxicated. The pair became visibly angry when a third patron would not drink alcohol the pair ordered for him, and had to be separated by security. The pair continued to be loud, incoherent, and were “making a scene,” yet the tavern served them several more drinks. When the third patron left the bar, and got into his car, the pair followed him. They began “banging, kicking, screaming and going around the van.” Security refused to call the police. The third patron drove away from the scene, but stopped at a red light up the street. The pair of intoxicated patrons followed him, smashed a window on the vehicle and assaulted him with an axe hammer.

The liability also extends beyond assaults. For example, iRappaport v. Nichols, 31 N.J. 188 (1959), four different bars served alcohol to a minor. The minor later drove home while severely intoxicated. He collided with another car, and killed the other driver. The Court sustained the claim against the bars, ruling the patron’s negligent operation of his automobile after leaving the taverns could be a “normal incident of the risk [the taverns] created, or an event [that] they could have reasonably foreseen.” Id. at 204,

Even injuries occurring to oneself may be foreseeable and potentially create liability for an establishment. In Soronen v. Olde Milford Inn, 46 N.J. 582 (1966) a bar served five alcoholic drinks to a patron who was already severely intoxicated.  The patron subsequently fell off his stool, hit his head and died.

Because liquor’s “inherently far-reaching dangers are evident” and may cause great social harm, a wide variety of injuries may give rise to a cause of action against an establishment when the injury is caused by the negligent serving of alcohol. Borough of Fanwood v. Rocco, 33 N.J. 404, 411 (1960); Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Inc. v. F & A Distrib. Co., 28 N.J. 444 (1958). If you believe you may have suffered an injury as a result of the negligent serving of alcohol, contact the attorneys at Kardos, Rickles, Hand & Bidlingmaier at 215-970-2755 for your free consultation.