A Visit to the Dram Shop

Things just got a bit tougher for Alabama businesses serving alcohol.

Before we get to the news, a quick primer on “dram shop” laws may be in order. Typically, a personal injury claim is between two people: the plaintiff who was injured and the defendant who allegedly caused the injury. In Alabama, like many states, a business that serves alcohol can also be a defendant in a personal injury case, even if it didn’t directly cause the injury. Years ago, Alabama enacted law—now referred to as Alabama’s “Dram Shop Act”—that provide a cause of action against anyone that sells or gives away alcohol “contrary to the provisions of law.”[1] This language alone doesn’t provide much guidance about what “contrary to the provisions of law” really means. Alabama courts have provided some clarification, suggesting that the purpose of dram shop laws is to punish anyone who serves alcohol to someone who is “visibly intoxicated.”[2] Historically, proving that a patron was visibly intoxicated required the plaintiff to provide direct evidence that the patron showed signs of intoxication while at the establishment. This was often a difficult burden for a plaintiff; however, a recent Alabama Supreme Court opinion appears to have made that burden a bit easier on the plaintiff and, consequently, more difficult on the business serving alcohol.

In Wiggins v. Mobile Greyhound Park, LLP[3], a patron of a greyhound race track left in his car and, while driving down the interstate, struck and killed a passenger in another vehicle. The fiancé of the deceased passenger sued the dog track under Alabama’s Dram Shop Act. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the dog track, largely because the plaintiff failed to provide direct evidence that the patron was visibly drunk while he was at the dog track. The circuit court found that the only direct evidence was the patron’s own testimony that 1) he only had two beers and 2) he stayed by the tv watching the races.

The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama. In its analysis, the Supreme Court expanded the allowable evidence of whether the patron was intoxicated to explicitly include circumstantial evidence of the patron’s condition after he left the dog track. The Supreme Court first applied the “totality of the circumstances” standard referenced in Alabama ABC Rules and Regulations[4]. The Court relied on this seemingly broadened standard to consider evidence from eye witnesses who only observed the patron’s condition at the scene of the accident—in other words, after he had left the dog track. The Court also noted circumstantial evidence provided by plaintiff’s expert, such as the speed and reaction time just prior to impact, to prove that he would have been visibly intoxicated when he was served alcohol at the race track.

The takeaway from the Wiggins case for businesses (or anyone) serving alcohol: even if servers are keenly aware of a patron’s condition, if the patron injures someone and is visibly intoxicated after he or she leaves your establishment, the business could be liable.

[1] Ala. Code § 6-5-71

[2] See McIsaac v. Monte Carlo Club, Inc., 587 So.2d 320 (Ala. 1991)

[3] No. 1170874, 2019 WL 1975407, at *1 (Ala. May 3, 2019)

[4] Ala. Admin. Code 20-x-6-.02(4).