Bars Investigated by the TABC

Can Bars Be Sued for Excessive Alcohol Service?

  • Last Updated: March 3rd, 2023
  • By: Mike Grossman
  • Dram Shop

Under The Texas Dram Shop Act Bars Can be Sued for Drunken Driving Accidents

Many states have special laws called "dram shop laws" are designed to hold bars liable for committing various alcohol-related infractions which result in injury or death. In particular, Texas dram shop laws are rather specific, citing that there are only two things that a bar can do wrong that would cause them to incur liability:

  • Serving an adult additional alcohol once it is obvious that they are already dangerously drunk
  • Serving any amount of alcohol to a minor child

If a bar in Texas commits either of those offenses, and someone is ultimately hurt as a result, the bar be held liable through a dram shop lawsuit. In this article, Texas dram shop attorney Michael Grossman goes into detail to explain how and why bars are liable under the Texas Dram Shop Act when they improperly serve alcohol.

Questions answered on this page:

  • What circumstances must be present for a bar to be liable under the Texas Dram Shop Act?
  • Under Texas law, is a drunken driving accident the driver's fault or the bar's fault?
  • Can you sue a bar for a drunken driving accident?

Under what circumstances can a bar be held liable?

We feel that many attorneys make this a more complex issue that it needs to be. In our eyes, it's simple. If a bar serves someone who they already know to be drunk, then they incur liability for whatever intoxication-caused harm that may subsequently occur after that point.

From that, one can infer that bars cannot be held liable for "serving too much," not "cutting someone off," failing to call a patron a cab, etc. All of things that the general public and the news media seem to believe are grounds for suing bars are generally incorrect. All of the aforementioned misconduct is indeed illegal and may result in the bar being cities by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, but the only thing they can be sued for is serving an already drunk person. How that person got drunk, the quantity of alcohol involved, whether or not the bar called a cab for them, those are all minor details. The right to sue rests on whether it can be shown that the bar knew or should have known that the customer was drunk, and then they served them anyway.

Like a lot of areas of law, it is typically easiest to explain how dram shop liability works in hypotheticals. The following scenarios can help explain where a bar is, or is not, liable for injuries:

Obvious Intoxication:

  • A patron arrives at a bar smelling of alcohol, slurring his speech, and his eyes are glassy. It's clear to everyone at the bar that the person is already drunk. The bar serves the patron anyhow, he leaves and causes an accident on his way home. This is a classic case of serving someone who is obviously intoxicated. The bar is liable by way of providing the intoxicated person more alcohol. It does not entirely matter that the bar wasn't the entity that "got him drunk" in the first place.
  • A patron arrives at a bar and appears completely sober. Unbeknownst to the bar, the patron has an extremely low tolerance for alcohol. The bar serves her a reasonable amount of alcohol, however, in spite of their caution, she gets thoroughly inebriated due to her low tolerance for alcohol (perhaps she is an inexperienced drinker or perhaps she is on medication that accelerates her intoxication). If the patron leaves and later causes an accident, the bar cannot be held liable because, when she was served the alcohol, she appeared sober. Bars and restaurants do not have to know each patron's capacity to handle alcohol.
  • A patron walks into a bar appearing very sober, but before walking in, she consumed three shots in her car. She orders a glass of wine and within minutes is plainly inebriated. Even if she later causes an accident, the bar will not be held liable because, at the time it sold her the wine, she wasn't obviously drunk.
  • A relatively sober woman of short stature and slight build goes into a restaurant's bar and orders seven drinks within one hour. While she might not "exhibit" the signs of intoxication, no one her size could possibly not be completely drunk after consuming that much alcohol in that short a period of time. The bar is liable because they knew or should have known that she is intoxicated, even though she may not have been outwardly manifesting signs of intoxication.
  • A 300 lb. lineman for a professional football team arrives in a bar totally sober and orders a shot of liquor. He then immediately leaves, drives to another bar, but on his way crashes into someone and kills them. The bar will in all likelihood not be responsible for the wrongful death. Why? Because serving a shot of liquor to someone of his stature is not likely to cause him to become legally intoxicated, and therefore his being intoxicated was not likely the cause of the accident.
  • A 19 year-old man enters a bar completely sober and purchases a beer. He leaves soon thereafter and gets into a fatal accident. Even though it was illegal for the bar to allow the teenager to purchase the alcohol, the same "obvious intoxication" burden must be met. In other words, even though it is illegal for the bar to serve the 19-year-old, that particular violation of the law does not make the bar automatically liable since he is an adult (even though he is too young to drink).
  • A 17-year-old purchases a beer from a bar and crashes into a motorist on her drive home. A successful plaintiff will not have to make a showing that the she was "obviously intoxicated" at all. By serving the child at all, the bar incurs liability so long as the intoxication was the primary cause of the crash.

Proximate Cause

Another key point to mention is that the improper service of alcohol (either by way of serving an obviously intoxicated patron or by virtue of the bar serving a child any amount of alcohol) alone is not enough to make a bar liable. The accident itself must be caused by the intoxication. Both elements, improper service and the accident must be attributable to intoxication, must be present to have a valid case. Here are some examples:

  • An over-served patron loses control and swerves over a median, crashing into an SUV at a high rate of speed, killing the family inside. The loved ones of the killed family will almost surely have a claim against the bar.
  • An over-served patron, driving home is at a stoplight and is struck from behind. The car involuntarily runs into a pedestrian. Although the driver was drunk and the bar over-served him, the cause of the accident was another car, not the driver's state of inebriation.

The mere fact that a person who was in an accident was served even after they were obviously intoxicated is not enough by itself to hold a bar liable. It must be the persons intoxicated after having been over-served that creates the grounds for a dram shop lawsuit.

Why Other Law Firms Shy Away From Dram Shop Cases

Not to be too critical of other lawyers, but at Grossman Law Offices, we are always amazed by the number of people who call us up with a dram shop case that had first called another lawyer. Invariably, the other law firm has told the prospective client that they do not take dram shop work, because dram shop cases are not winnable. Having won literally hundreds of dram shop cases over the years, this is always news to us.

Apparently, many attorneys without extensive dram shop experience read a portion of the law that gives protection to bars if their staff is certified by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and the bar does nothing to promote a culture of dangerous alcohol service and those inexperienced attorneys decide the case is unwinnable. In our experience, most bars who are involved in dram shop cases have a culture of irresponsible service. Rarely, do the defenses afforded to bars hold up to any real scrutiny, once an experienced dram shop attorney is involved in the case.

How can Grossman Law Office help with your dram shop case.

Over the last 25 years, Grossman Law Offices has helped hundreds of people who were injured by irresponsible bar service hold those bad actors responsible. Our team of attorneys has more experience with dram shop cases than just about any other attorney in Texas and knows how to investigate, litigate, and win compensation for those who have been injured by a bar's negligence service.

If you were injured in a drunk-driving accident and suspect that a bar may have over-served the driver, call us today with any questions at (855) 326-0000 to find out how.

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