Dram shop liability laws hold alcohol servers responsible for harm that intoxicated or underage patrons cause to other people (or, in some cases, to themselves). These laws are established at the state level through common law, legislation, or both. States' dram shop laws vary from state to state, with alcohol sellers in different states exposed to varying degrees of liability. Dram shop laws can be particularly important in preventing alcohol problems. The few studies that have been done to date on dram shop liability laws' impact on the alcohol serving environment and on alcohol-related injury indicate that these laws can be effective.
The statutory duty not to sell or deliver alcoholic beverages to intoxicated persons applies to and is intended to protect, among others, the intoxicated patron. However, an intoxicated person may recover against a licensed vendor of alcoholic beverages for personal injuries, property damage or consequential damages arising out of the service of alcohol only if the proprietor acted in a willful, wanton or reckless manner in serving the patron alcohol. The statutes are also intended to protect members of the general public. Accordingly, a tavern keeper who sells alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated patron may be held civilly liable to a third party who is injured by the intoxicated person.
As of this writing eight states do not have dram shop laws: Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Virginia. States' dram shop laws form a continuum, with alcohol sellers in different states exposed to varying degrees of liability. As of 1989, 7 states had very low, 8 had low, 13 had low medium, 8 had medium, 12 had high, and 3 had very high liability exposure ( Mosher, James F, and Kathy Janes. June 1989. Delphi panel on state dram shop liability laws: final report. San Rafael CA: The Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems).