Can a bar/restaurant be sued for damages resulting from over-serving a customer?
Yes. The New Jersey Supreme Court first recognized a lawsuit based upon the negligent sale of alcoholic beverages in Rappaport v. Nichols. In that case, four different taverns served alcohol to an intoxicated minor. After leaving the last tavern, the minor drove a motor vehicle, collided with another car and killed the other driver. The Court allowed the claim of the victim’s wife against the tavern for serving the intoxicated minor.
The Supreme Court extended what is known as “dram shop” liability in Soronen v. Olde Milford Inn. In that case, it was held that the tavern could be held liable for the injuries sustained by the intoxicated patron as well as innocent third parties.
Under current New Jersey law, a tavern that serves alcoholic beverages to a “visibly intoxicated” patron or a minor will be liable for its share of damages caused by its own negligence. The tavern, however, may assert the defense of “comparative” negligence, meaning that the patron’s drinking contributed to his or her own injuries.
What is “Visibly Intoxicated”?
N.J.S.A. 2A:22A–3 defines “visibly intoxicated” as “a state of intoxication accompanied by a perceptible act or series of acts which present clear signs of intoxication.” Examples of a “visibly intoxicated” person for which a server may be held liable for serving alcohol have been found in persons exhibiting a blank stare look, being animated or loud, having a very slight sway, slurring words and using rapid hand movements while talking. “Visibly intoxicated” has also been described as appearing to be in a daze, swaying, having bloodshot eyes, fumbling and having slow hand movements. Additional characteristics exhibited by a “visibly intoxicated” person have included poor body gait, inability to stand and walk properly and poor muscular coordination.
Social Host Liability
It is also important to note that a social host can be liable for injuries and damages if the host serves a guest he/she knows to be drunk, and he/she knows the guest will be driving. This rule was firmly established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Kelly v. Gwinnell. The same rule applied to hosts who served liquor to a visibly intoxicated minor, knowing that the minor would drive, in Linn v. Rand.
By: Andrew L. Chambarry