Does South Carolina's Dram Shop Liability Apply to Social Hosts and Bars Serving Alcohol to Intoxicated Individuals or Minors Who Cause Accidents?

If you or someone you love has been injured by a drunk driver, you may be wondering who is responsible for your losses. Of course, the driver who chose to get behind the wheel while intoxicated is liable for the damages they caused, but often they are uninsured or underinsured. But what about the person or establishment that provided them with alcohol? Can they also be held accountable for their negligence or recklessness?

In some states, there are specific laws that address this issue, known as dram shop laws. A dram shop is any business that sells or serves alcoholic beverages, such as a bar, restaurant, or liquor store. Dram shop laws allow victims of drunk driving accidents to sue the dram shop for damages if they can prove that the dram shop knowingly sold or served alcohol to a person who was underage or visibly intoxicated, and that person then caused an injury or death as a result of their intoxication. While South Carolina does not have a formal dram shop or social liability law, there are still be ways to hold bars and party hosts liable for overserving their patrons.

South Carolina Does Not Have An Explicit Dram Shop or Social Host Liability Law

As mentioned, South Carolina does not have a formal dram shop law or statute. Instead, the state relies on common law and criminal statutes to determine the liability of dram shops and social hosts (individuals who provide alcohol to guests in a private setting) in cases involving alcohol-related injuries or deaths.

According to South Carolina Code Section 61-4-580, it is illegal for any person or establishment to “knowingly” sell or serve alcohol to a person who is under 21 years old or to a person who is intoxicated. Additionally, it is illegal for any person or establishment to transfer alcohol for underage drinkers to consume, such as at a party or event.

If a person or establishment violates these laws and someone is injured or killed as a result, they can be held liable for the damages caused by the drunk driver. However, to establish liability, the victim must prove that the person or establishment knew or should have known that they were selling or serving alcohol to an underage or intoxicated person, and that their actions were the proximate cause of the injury or death.

This can be challenging to prove, as it requires evidence of the signs of intoxication that were present at the time of service, such as slurred speech, impaired coordination, bloodshot eyes, etc. It also requires evidence of the amount and type of alcohol consumed by the driver, and the time period over which they consumed it. Furthermore, it requires evidence of the causal link between the service of alcohol and the accident, such as witness testimony, police reports, blood alcohol tests, etc.

But SC Courts Are Increasingly Holding Hosts Liable

If that sounds like an uphill battle to hold a reckless party host, bar, or restaurant liable, it’s because it is – to win, you’ll have to have excellent attorneys and expert witness testimony.

As an example, in a recent 2010 case, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed a $10 million judgment against The Getaway Lounge & Grill and the people who owned it. The case was about a customer who went bar hopping that night before getting into a car accident that killed the customer and badly hurt the driver of the other car. One of the owners of The Getaway said that the customer did not look drunk while he was there.  The customer’s blood alcohol level (BAC) was .212, which was found in samples of fluids taken from his body. An expert witness testified that the driver’s BAC must have been .18 and .20 while at The Getaway, meaning “he would have been grossly intoxicated and exhibiting symptoms of intoxication.” The Court said that there was enough proof from other sources to back the forensic chemist’s expert testimony. 

The Court also said that a customer does not have to be “visibly intoxicated” for a dram shop to be responsible; rather, they only need to “know” that they are drunk. 

Compare that result, however, with a much-cited 1986 case Garren v. Cummings and McCrady, Inc., where the court held that there was no liability for a social host that overserved an adult attendee of a party. While Garren has been overruled in part by subsequent cases in situations involving social hosts knowingly serving alcohol to guests who are under 21, it remains the law in South Carolina that social hosts are not liable for service of alcohol to intoxicated guests who are above the legal drinking age. Accordingly, where the intoxicated driver is over 21, the claim is on very different legal footing depending upon whether a social host or commercial bar served the alcohol.

Social Host Liability for Libations Served to Underage Drinkers

The above cases are about serving alcohol to adults, but what about teenage and college-aged drinking, where the vast majority of the patrons are below the legal drinking age of 21? Obviously, these parties happen – they always have, especially around Halloween and other holidays. 

The cases Barnes v. Cohen Dry Wall Inc. and Marcum v. Bowden both address social host liability in South Carolina for knowingly serving alcohol to adults who are less than 21. In Barnes, the court held that a social host could be liable to a third party injured in an alcohol-related accident caused by a 19 year old guest who was served intentionally served alcohol by the host. In Marcum, the court held that social hosts could be liable to a 19 year old guest who suffered an alcohol-related injury after being intentionally served alcohol by the host. It remains unresolved under South Carolina law whether a social host can be liable for negligently allowing the consumption of alcoholic beverages by a minor guest under 18.  These cases nevertheless suggest that social hosts in South Carolina should be cautious about serving alcohol to minors, as they could be held liable for any resulting injuries.

Dram Shop Claims Are Winnable, With The Right Help

Though South Carolina does not have an explicit dram shop law, as many other states do, the trend in cases has been to hold hosts, especially but not exclusively commercial establishments, liable for overserving their patrons. This is even more so if the patrons are minors. 

If you have been injured by an intoxicated person and you believe that a dram shop or social host is partly responsible for your losses, you should consult with our experienced personal injury lawyers who can help you gather and present the necessary evidence to support your claim. We can also help you negotiate with the insurance companies involved and represent you in court if needed.

You deserve to be compensated for your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages caused by a drunk driver. Contact us today for a free consultation, and let us help you pursue justice.