Who can be held accountable for drunk drivers on Pennsylvania roadways?

According to a report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 9,878 deaths attributed to alcohol-impaired-driving car accidents in 2011, which is the most recent year for which complete data is available. Of these, 407 fatalities occurred right here in Pennsylvania – which represents an alarming 32 percent of all traffic deaths throughout the entire state that year.

Adding to these horrific numbers is the harsh reality that for every drunk driving fatality there are several additional non-fatal injuries attributed to intoxicated motorists each year – such as broken bones and severe head injuries. However, it is important for Pennsylvania motorists to know that remedies may be available to hold injury-causing drunk drivers responsible for their actions beyond the penalties doled out in criminal court.

For instance, while most people are aware that a lawsuit may be filed against a drunk driver for the injuries he or she causes, under Pennsylvania law there may also exist a cause of action against a bar or restaurant if that particular establishment serves alcohol to an obviously intoxicated patron that subsequently injures a third party. This important tenet of law is more commonly known in Pennsylvania as Dram Shop liability.

Dram Shop liability and visible intoxication in Pennsylvania

Specifically, it is unlawful in Pennsylvania for anyone licensed to sell alcohol, such as a bar or restaurant, to sell or otherwise provide any alcohol to a patron that is “visibly intoxicated.” If the bar does provide alcohol to someone visibly intoxicated, Pennsylvania law specifically states that these same licensees can be held accountable for any injuries or damages consequently inflicted upon third parties by their visibly intoxicated patrons. For example, liability may be established if an intoxicated patron leaves the bar and injures another in a car accident.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania statutes do not precisely define what is considered “visibly intoxicated,” which means it has been left up to the courts.

When interpreting what is meant by “visibly intoxicated,” courts in Pennsylvania generally require proof of visible manifestations of intoxication and not just any physical manifestation. For instance, evidence that a bar patron had a blood-alcohol-concentration above 0.08 percent when served alcohol in a bar is generally not sufficient by itself to hold the bar liable under Dram Shop laws when the intoxication is not externally apparent – further visible manifestations are usually needed. Such manifestations may include slurred speech, blood-shot eyes, loud behavior and poor coordination.

Also, it should be noted that it is not unlawful for a visibly intoxicated patron to be in a bar; it is only unlawful if the bar serves or otherwise permits the patron to consume alcohol if he or she is already visibly intoxicated.

As this article illustrates, Dram Shop laws in Pennsylvania can be quite complicated and difficult to navigate. Accordingly, if you or a loved one has been injured by a drunk driver who was over served at a bar or restaurant, it is often important to speak with an experienced drunk driving injury attorney to be advised of your rights and options.