Time Limitations For Filing a Dram Shop Lawsuit
In Texas, victims of accidents caused by an establishment's unlawful alcohol service can seek compensation by filing a lawsuit. However, the law also limits the amount of time available for victims to do so. Except in rare instances, people have two years after the date they suffered the incident causing their losses occurred to file suit, or their claim simply vanishes. This period is known as the statute of limitations.
In addition to preventing recovery if the statute of limitations has expired, waiting too long to file suit can also adversely impact a dram shop case. More so than almost any other type of personal injury case, solid dram shop cases require a fair amount of time in order to gather evidence. Waiting too long not only runs the risk that that crucial evidence will be lost or damage, but also increases the risk that your attorney will be unable to conduct a full investigation, forcing them to file suit with a much weaker case than they would otherwise be able to.
In this article, one of Texas' most experienced dram shop attorneys, Michael Grossman, discusses the statute of limitations, as well as certain limited exceptions.
For a more in-depth look at Texas dram shop law, we encourage you to visit our helpful Comprehensive Guide to Dram Shop Law as well.
Questions answered on this page:
- What is a statute of limitations?
- What happens when the statute of limitations expires in a dram shop case?
- What is tolling?
- What is the statute of limitations in a Texas dram shop case?
- Why you should not wait until the statute of limitations is about to expire before contacting an attorney.
What is a statute of limitations?
Statutes of limitations exist to allow the accused in a personal injury case to have a reasonable chance to defend themselves. If statutes of limitations did not exist, people could theoretically be sued 10, 20, 30, or even 50 or 60 years after an incident. The question would then arise: how do you defend yourself effectively when the alleged wrong-doing occurred years or decades before? Recognizing the unfairness of such a situation, legislatures instituted statute of limitations.
Statutes of limitations offer a "silver-bullet" defense to anyone accused of wrong-doing, be it criminal or civil. Certain crimes are considered so serious that they have no statute of limitations. The prime example is first-degree murder. In that instance, the seriousness of the crimes rises to such a level that normal concerns about a victim's ability to mount a defense are counterbalanced by the state's need to seek justice and deter such heinous crimes.
A key area where criminal and civil cases diverge is that in many civil cases the defendant is required to maintain records, which could be used to show their liability. For most businesses, asking them to maintain records for years on end would be a considerable burden. To that end, Texas law requires all injured victims to bring a claim against the party whose alleged wrongful conduct resulted in their injuries within 2 years of the date when their injuries were sustained or their loved one was killed.
While this might seem a bit unfair to the victims at first, it serves a few important purposes, including:
- Only allowing courts to hear cases with fresh (and presumably more credible) evidence;
- Preserving taxpayer funds by reducing the caseload of our courts; and
- Creating certainty for defendants, many of whom claim they would suffer grave economic harms from the uncertainty involved in being prepared to defend lawsuits arising from any point in their history
In dram shop cases specifically, businesses are expected to maintain records of their surveillance footage, receipts for transactions, and copies of company policies. It is easy to see how the paperwork could become an unreasonable burden if there were no statute of limitations for these claims.
When The Statute of Limitations Expires
Simply put, injury victims who fail to file a lawsuit with a court within the two year statute of limitations, will lose their ability to ever file such a lawsuit. The key requirement here is to file a lawsuit in a court of law because contacting the defendant, their attorneys, or an attorney to represent your interests are not equivalent to filing suit under the law.
However, in certain exceptional circumstances, there is a glimmer of hope for gaining access to the courts even after the statute has run, as Texas law allows extensions delaying the date when a statute of limitations begins in extraordinary cases.
What Is "Tolling?"
Tolling is simply a legal doctrine whereby the time period from which the two years to bring a lawsuit is delayed. Tolling in a case is usually only permissible where the injured victim is "disabled," and may not have the mental capacity to bring a lawsuit on their own behalf or understand a claim filed on their behalf. The two disabilities exhibited by injured victims where tolling the statute of limitations is permissible are:
- Suffering from an "unsound mind" (usually caused by any major mental defect resulting from injury that prevents the victim from understanding a lawsuit's progress); or
- Not having reached the "age of majority" (20 for purposes of dram shop claims.)
Thus, the two-year time period to bring a lawsuit will begin when one of the above disabilities is removed. Disabilities for those suffering from an "unsound mind" are removed when they reach a level of recovery where they regain the requisite mental capacity, or where someone is appointed to represent their interests (such as power of attorney granted to a spouse or family member or through an attorney ad litem). The disability assigned to minors is removed when they reach the age of majority. Thus, these injury victims have until their 20th birthday to file a dram shop claim.
Repercussions Of Waiting Too Long
There are several advantages that are only fully realized after contacting a lawyer. Generally, it's in the best interest of an injured victim to begin their lawsuit as soon as possible while their minds are fresh and evidence is better preserved.
Further, victims need compensation now. Every day you wait is another 24 hours you won't have the money for lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering that can occur after these tragic accidents.
While it would certainly make our jobs a lot easier if they did, bars and restaurants pretty much never just come forward and admit they're the ones that attorneys are looking for in dram shop cases. For many establishments, the simplest way to avoid trouble after one of their patrons is over-served and causes an accident is to simply hope that a plaintiff's attorney never tracks them down.
For that reason, locating and even knowing which bar to sue can be an investigative process in itself. If your lawyer is rushed and files papers against the wrong bar in order to beat the statute of limitations, but that bar can demonstrate that they never served the drunk driver in your case, the case will be dismissed, the statute of limitations can expire in the interim and your formerly valid claim becomes worthless.
Also of great importance, the damage done to a case by waiting too long to contact an attorney cannot be undone. Bars and restaurants have high turnover, which means tracking down service staff can be particularly difficult after a fair bit of time has passed. Without the people who actually served the intoxicated driver on the night of the accident, these cases become much more difficult to prove.
When it comes to Texas dram shop cases, the more time that an attorney has to prepare one, the better. The key to making a dram shop case its best chance of success is time. Tracking down the bar takes time. The investigation and litigation processes take time. Quite simply, giving your attorney more time to prepare your case makes it as strong as it can be. Anything less means that corners have to be cut and greatly increases the likelihood that a case could be lost, or at the very least that you could be forced for less than you could otherwise have gotten.
Contact the attorneys at Grossman Law Offices to determine how the statute of limitations applies to your case.
If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash caused by a drunk driver and suspect they may have become intoxicated at a drinking establishment, you should contact the dram shop attorneys at Grossman Law Offices in Dallas, TX to determine how the statute of limitations applies to your case. The sooner you contact us, the more options we will have when pursuing your case.
For more information regarding statute of limitations in dram shop claims, or for a free consultation based on the facts of your case, call us at (855) 326-0000.
Related Articles for Further Reading:
- Overview of Comparative Fault in Dram Shop Cases
- A Look at Who Can Be Sued and Under What Circumstance under the Texas Dram Shop Act
- What Is Obvious Intoxication According to Texas Law