Can I Sue a Bar for a Drunk Driving Accident?

If you were injured by a drunk driver, you can file a claim against that driver’s insurance policy. But depending on the circumstances, you may also be able to take legal action against the bar. The laws that outline a bar or social host’s responsibilities are called “dram shop laws.” Under these laws, a victim could sue a bar for overserving a patron or serving alcohol to a minor.

In this post, we’ll provide some general legal information about Washington State’s dram shop laws and what a victim would need to prove to win a case. However, every situation is different. The best way to know if you could file a claim or lawsuit is to contact a personal injury lawyer who handles drunk driving accidents.

A quick note: our team can handle these cases! Please reach out and we’ll schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys.

Drunk Driving is a Big Problem in Washington State

Drunk driving is a big problem across the country, but particularly in Washington State. According to data collected by the NHTSA, drunk drivers were responsible for 39% of all traffic-related fatalities in 2021.

Here are some additional statistics from WSDOT and M.A.D.D. that highlight the drunk driving problem:

  • Drunk-driving fatalities increased 20% from 2021 to 2022
  • Alcohol was involved in more than 33,000 crashes between 2018-2022
  • An average of 112 people are killed every year in Washington by a drunk driver
  • Two out of 3 people in the US will be impacted by drunk driving at some point in their lives

Clearly, drivers are still getting behind the wheel drunk, even though it’s illegal. When a drunk driver injures or kills someone in a crash, they are negligent. The victim or the victim’s family can go after the drunk driver to be compensated for medical bills, damage to the vehicle, or wrongful death.

But in some cases, the law allows a victim to additionally seek compensation from others who may have been responsible for overserving the driver.

Washington Dram Shop Laws

In Washington State, bars have certain duties about who they sell alcohol to, and how much. These “dram shop” laws hold bars accountable and give injured victims a pathway for taking legal action.

There are two dram shop laws in Washington State, each with a different focus:

  • Sales to persons apparently under the influence of liquor (RCW 66.44.200). Under the law, a bar or other establishment that sells alcohol cannot serve a patron who is clearly intoxicated. Granted, different people may have different opinions on whether someone is intoxicated. However, most sensible people would agree that someone who is slurring their speech or unable to walk has had too much to drink.
  • Furnishing liquor to minors (RCW 66.44.270). It is illegal for anyone to provide alcohol to a minor (under the age of 21). If a bar served a minor and then that minor caused an accident, the bar could also be sued.

These laws make it possible for victims or their families to recoup costs related to their injuries from the bar as well as the drunk driver.

Proving Liability in a Dram Shop Case

Suppose the Little Neighborhood Tavern overserves Billy one night. Billy then leaves the Tavern in his pickup truck where he strikes and seriously injures Pam, who was out on an evening walk. She now needs surgery, physical therapy, and time off work to recover. Pam could fie a claim against Billy’s insurance company for her medical bills and missed wages. And, thanks to Washington’s dram shop laws, she may be able to also sue the Tavern that overserved Billy.

But to sue the Tavern, she’ll need to prove her claim that they were at fault. How might she do this? With evidence, such as:

  • Witness testimony
  • Video surveillance
  • BAC and field sobriety results
  • Police report
  • Bar’s history of similar incidents
  • Billy’s history of similar incidents

Evidence can be difficult to gather. Hopefully, Pam decides to call a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. An attorney has experience in securing evidence and can also help guide Pam through the process.

Can You Sue a Social Host?

Now suppose Billy didn’t have too much to drink at the Little Neighborhood Tavern. Instead, suppose he was at his friend Wayne’s house. Billy and Wayne are having fun watching the game. Throughout the course of the afternoon, Billy helps himself to a few more beers than usual. Wayne has provided the drunks and told Billy to “help himself.” After the game, Billy gets into his pickup truck and strikes Pam, who is out on her walk.

In this scenario, Pam could once again go after Billy. She can file a claim against his car insurance policy. But what about Wayne? After all, he was the one that provided the alcohol. Under Washington State law, Wayne’s exempt from being sued.

However, there is an exception. If Billy is under 21, Wayne could be in trouble.

Even so, every case is unique. Depending on the facts of the case and what your lawyer uncovers during the investigation process, it’s possible there may be other defendants you could pursue for what happened to you.

Time Limits for Pursuing a Dram Shop Lawsuit

In the State of Washington, for most cases, you have three years from the date you were hurt to file a personal injury claim. However, there are a couple of reasons to act sooner rather than later:

  1. You’ll have access to evidence while it’s still fresh.
  2. You can get guidance from a lawyer from the get-go, which can help maximize your claim.

When to Involve an Attorney

Any time you or a loved one has been injured in a drunk driving accident you should call an attorney. Most of the time, proving that the other driver was responsible is clear. Even so, an attorney will understand how to handle the complexities of your case and maximize your compensation. If there are other responsible parties, such as a bar or social host, an attorney can take the necessary legal steps on your behalf.

At Ladenburg Law, it’s always free to call us to see if you have a case. Should we choose to work together, you’ll only pay a fee if we’re able to settle your case. To reach out, call us or fill out the short form on our website.

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