Can The Owner of a Bar Be Sued If a Patron Drinks and Drives?

After Eduardo Chua was struck by a drunk driver in Nashville, Tennessee, he decided to sue the people that harmed him: the owners of the bars that served the drinks that got the driver intoxicated.

Two bars — Kelly’s Karaoke and Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar — are defendants in his lawsuit. They could be liable for Chua’s medical expenses and other damages.

Dram shop laws: bar owners can be sued if customers drink and driveThe question of how much liability a bar or restaurant bears for a drunk-driving patron is getting a lot of attention lately. The statutes involved are called dram shop laws, and all states have them to one extent or another.

Courts for many years resisted the idea of holding drinking establishments responsible for the crimes of drinkers. But as anti-drunk-driving legislation became a prominent cause of organizations like MADD, states began passing laws holding vendors liable to some degree or another.

Invariably, the topic of personal responsibility comes up when dram laws are discussed. Why should a tavern be liable if a customer decides to drink too much? By all means punish the one who chooses to drink and drive, but bar owners are just doing their job. It’s up to individuals to make the right choices.

There is, however, an argument against “personal responsibility” — society’s responsibility. We, as a society, have to live with the choices that these people make. Waiting until people are injured or killed just isn’t an option for those whose priority is saving lives. When dram shop and social host laws spread the responsibility around society, more people end up on the job preventing alcohol-related crashes. And there is evidence that these laws work.

However this lawsuit turns out, perhaps its very existence will cause Tennesseans to be more vigilant in keeping drunk drivers from destroying lives.