There is a law in Virginia (VA) called the Dram Shop Law that provides immunity to bar owners and other commercial establishments who serve alcohol to a patron who ends up harming someone on the road as a drunk driver.
The same immunity protects individuals who throw parties in their homes even when they knowingly serve too much to drink to an intoxicated person who kills someone with their car. Not all states have this immunity for bars. For example, North Carolina (NC) does not allow businesses to get off the hook so easily when they contribute to a motor vehicle accident with injuries or death.
Having practice law in Virginia (VA) for over 18 years specializing in car accidents and wrongful death, I am well aware of this unfortunate law. I have often been hired regarding terrible motor vehicle wrecks where people have died at the hands of intoxicated drivers. The issue often comes up as to whether the bar or club where the negligent motorist last visited could be held responsible for their negligence in serving alcohol to a person who was obviously a risk to harm others on the road. In these situations I have had to advise my injured client or the family who has lost a loved one that under Virginia (VA) law you normally cannot sue the bar. This often comes as surprising and unhappy news to the persons wronged by the drunk driver and the recklessness of a commercial establishment like a restaurant. However, it is the law in Virginia (VA) governing negligence cases and has been tested in the Virginia Supreme Court. I am always amazed when this situation occurs and a personal injury lawyer files a baseless claim against the bar. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to file that suit if it was permitted by law. My reason for being disappointed in my fellow personal injury lawyers when they file that frivolous suit is that I know they have likely given false hope to their clients about having any chance of success. Often the lawyer filing this case against the bar for the harm caused by their drunken patron will get his name in the newspaper on the front page. Sometimes I wonder if that is the only reason that these lawyers file lawsuits which have no chance of success, but make good press. I often think that the newspaper reporters don’t know enough about the law to point out that pursuit of a file prohibited by the Dram Shop Law is a waste of the courts time and the client’s emotional energy in this tragic circumstance.
When the two teenagers were killed by a drunken illegal immigrant recently in Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA) this sad situation repeated itself. A bereaved father hired a personal injury lawyer who sued the Mexican restaurant that had served this driver alcohol before getting on the road. There is almost no chance that a Virginia Beach Circuit Court judge will let the case go forward because of the Dram Shop law. However, the splashy front page news coverage that the lawyer gets makes him look like a hero who is doing something about the problem. Really the only productive way to address the issue is to go to the legislature and change this unfair, anti-consumer law. That is not likely to happen because the powerful insurance lobby in the Richmond, Virginia (VA) state legislature will prevent any change in that law from occurring. A future change to the Dram Shop Law in Virginia (VA) will not help the poor family of the teenage girl whose life was recently taken by a drunk driver. However, if enough pressure is put on the legislature, perhaps the law could be changed which will alter the bad conduct of bar operators in the future. What you should do if you care about this issue is let your Virginia (VA) state senator or delegate know how you feel about it. For a list of contact numbers for the Virginia (VA) General Assembly click here.