Although it’s admittedly got an odd name relegated to the annals of legal history, this is an important and well recognized doctrine in New York State. But what is it exactly? At first blush, the name might suggest something related to workers’ rights or something industrial, but that would be wrong. Dram Shop refers to New York’s body of law that pertains to the liability of bars, liquor stores and other commercial establishments which serve alcohol to either minors or those who are visibly intoxicated who ultimately cause the death or injury of some unrelated third party.

The term Dram Shop is actually one that was coined in the United States, and it historically refers to establishments that sold liquor by the liquid measure dram. These laws, which have been adopted by virtually every state in the Union in one form or another, aim to protect the public from the dangers of both underage drinking and over-served adults. New York’s Dram Shop Law is codified in General Obligations Law Sections 11-100 and 11-101.

At common law, New York recognizes that individuals who knowingly and intentionally consume alcohol to excess are solely liable for any injuries that they cause. The Dram Shop Law, however, created a carve-out or exception to that rule whereby the legislature saw fit to allow a cause of action against private establishments that unlawfully sell alcohol to minors or visibly intoxicated persons who later causes injury to another. Section 11-100 sets forth a cause of action for selling alcohol to anyone under 21 years of age, while Section 11-101 sets forth the cause of action for selling alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person.

Section 11-101 has been construed by New York courts to apply strictly in the context of the commercial sale of alcohol for profit. What does this mean practically speaking? At its most basic level, the portion of New York’s Dram Shop law pertaining to serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons relates only to commercial businesses, rather than private individuals. By way of example, if you were to host a holiday party and one of your guests consumed too much alcohol and later caused injury to another person, the Dram Shop law wouldn’t apply to the homeowner. One test for aiding in the determination of whether a potential tortfeasor’s actions were undertaken within the commercial context can usually be established by establishing whether the alcohol consumed was sold to the consuming party or provided freely.

General Obligations Law Section 11-100 establishes a more rigid guideline for the imposition of liability. In the context of unlawfully furnishing or otherwise assisting a person under the age of 21 in procuring alcohol, anyone who engages in this conduct can ultimately be found liable. That said, a person cannot be found liable under Section 11-100 if he is unaware of alcohol consumption by the minor, did not authorize the consumption of alcohol on his premises, or he did not actually provide the alcohol to the minor.

With all of that said, the ultimate question becomes one of when can one bring a Dram Shop action in New York? As alluded to earlier, New York will not allow persons who consume alcohol of their own free will to bring lawsuits for injuries that they themselves purportedly suffered as a result of the alcohol served or sold to them by another. The courts also won’t allow a plaintiff to claim liability against another where it was the plaintiff himself who procured or provided alcohol to the intoxicated person who caused his injuries.

Quite simply, these laws are intended to protect the interests of innocents who are injured or killed by reason of a violation of the Dram Shop law. New York’s public policy, however, is very strong on one other point. Although it will not allow a person’s estate to sue an establishment for wrongful death, New York recognizes the rights of children over an establishment to maintain a cause of action for the loss of parental consortium when it can be established that the bar served an intoxicated patron and that patron ultimately perished.

While each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits, New York’s Dram Shop law is pretty hard and fast in its application. To successfully maintain a cause of action under General Obligations Law Section 11-100, liability will be imposed on anyone who knowingly furnishes or assists a minor in procuring alcohol which ultimately causes that minor’s impairment or intoxication. In order for liability to be imposed under Section 11-101, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant made a commercial sale of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person who ended up causing injury to another. At face value, these standards are easy enough to meet, but never take things at face value. Always consult with counsel to determine whether your specific set of facts would warrant a Dram Shop case. Even if Dram Shop liability can’t be imposed, there is still the potential for the imposition of common law liability, so don’t rule anything out without speaking with your attorney!