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The What and Why of Dram Shop Liability

June 9, 2020
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What Does Dram Shop Liability Mean?

“Dram shop liability” refers to a body of laws that impose liability on businesses for injuries that arise from intoxicated individuals they sell alcohol to. A majority of states (about 30 total) have these types of laws in place. As anyone with their BASSET card knows, Illinois is among them. This means if an establishment in Illinois sells alcohol to someone who is intoxicated, and that someone is, for example, in a catastrophic car accident, the business that sold the alcohol can be held legally responsible for the costs stemming from the accident. So, someone who is harmed could end up having a valid legal claim against a business, even if they’ve never entered it.


What Does “Dram” Mean?

What does “dram” mean? A dram is a small unit of measurement that liquor used to be sold in (a “dram” of alcohol). Bars used to be called dram shops.

This post discusses the liability of employers. As you are well aware if you were BASSET certified at BASSET On The Fly, servers can also be held legally responsible for over-serving alcohol. But this post is limited to a discussion of the employer’s liability.


Why Would States Enact Dram Shop Liability Laws?

Why not just blame the person who chose to drink irresponsibly?

Dram shop laws fall under the umbrella of tort law, which is the law available to a person when another person’s negligent behavior harms them. Historically, one of the primary purposes of tort law was to prevent people from taking “self-help” measures when someone harmed them – to prevent them from seeking vengeance or retribution on their own terms. This was an issue because typically, when we talk about torts, we’re not talking about someone’s feelings being hurt. We’re talking about something that ended up causing catastrophic, life-altering loss for someone.

Sometimes people’s negligence costs other people a lot of money, and both the monetary and personal consequences of the negligence are borne by victims over a lifetime. Drunk driving is a prime example of why tort law exists in the first place.

Let’s say someone is hit by a drunk driver, and that someone suffers a severe brain injury.  Let’s say that someone used to work as an accountant, but will never work in any income-earning capacity again. How will they support themselves? How will they support their family? Who will pay for their long-term medical care? Regardless of whether it was an “accident,” and regardless of who’s fault it was, money for those things is going to have to come from someone, somewhere. Who is it most fair to hold responsible? Certainly, it’s fair to hold the driver responsible, and the law does so. But many states have decided it’s also fair to hold the business responsible that profited from selling alcohol to someone who’d already had enough.

In short, we hold businesses responsible because solely holding the drunk driver responsible doesn’t work: (1) The harms caused by drunk driving are as severe as harms can get, and yet drunk driving remains quite common. Fear of criminal penalties and money judgments against the driver is simply not enough to prevent lots of people from continuing to drive drunk. So, the law looks to the source of the alcohol service as another means of addressing the problem.

(2) The drunk driver isn’t likely to have the funds to cover the loss they caused. Businesses have deeper pockets, and the harsh reality is that someone will have to pay for the loss. If the drunk driver can’t cover it, should it be the victim’s problem? As a state, we’ve decided it’s more fair to make it the dram shop’s problem. It’s not so much about punishing businesses, but about practical necessity.


With your BASSET card from BASSET On The Fly, you’re well-equipped to responsibly serve alcohol. As long as you keep your BASSET certification up-to-date, dram shop liability is a concern you shouldn’t need to worry about.

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