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Understanding Tennessee’s Dram Shop Laws


It’s a sad fact that despite all the public warnings and awareness, people still get behind the wheel drunk. When they do, they often hurt people and those victims can sue for their injuries. But sometimes, it’s not just the drunk driver who is liable. Sometimes, the person or business that served that person alcohol may be liable.

Dram Shop Laws

Laws that hold social hosts or businesses liable for injuries that drunk customers (including drunk drivers) cause are called Dram Shop Laws. Most states, including Tennessee, have restrictions on when a business can be sued for serving alcohol to someone who ultimately drives drunk and injures someone.

In Tennessee, the dram shop law only allows a victim to bring a lawsuit against a business or vendor if the business or vendor:

  • Sold alcohol to someone under 21 or to someone who was “visibly intoxicated,” and
  • The consumption of the alcohol was a direct cause of the injury

On top of these very difficult requirements, the law also requires that causation be found “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a rare instance where the beyond a reasonable doubt criminal standard applies in civil law cases, which normally require just a finding of preponderance of the evidence (51% of the evidence).

Showing Causation

Causation is sometimes easy to prove—drunk drivers, after all, tend to drive recklessly and negligently—but a jury still may find that someone drove carelessly and recklessly, but not as a result of being intoxicated.

For example, imagine a drunk driver was distracted because he or she was using the in-dash infotainment system. That person was surely careless, but the thing that caused the accident may not have been the intoxication—it may well have been the distraction of using the in dash system.

Other Requirements

Looking closer at the language of Tennessee’s dram shop law, you’ll also notice that the person being served must be visibly intoxicated. This can be hard to prove; many people at a bar may not appear to be intoxicated to a bartender, who may see hundreds of customers on any given night.

Also note the alcohol must be “sold.” That means that social hoists, who just serve guests or friends alcohol, will not be liable for injuries that the people they served alcohol to caused.

Dram Shop Liability Not Limited to Drivers

Remember that dram shop laws don’t just apply to driving. Any injury caused by any drunk person can lead to a dram shop lawsuit. So, if someone is drunk and falls on you, the dram shop law would apply and you could hold the business that sold the alcohol liable for your injuries, assuming you could demonstrate the other requirements of the statute.

Remember that these restrictions only apply to someone who is injured by someone who was served alcohol. They don’t apply to those who were directly served the alcohol, who may have normal ordinary negligence cases, if they feel that the business that served them alcohol was careless or negligent.

Call the Knoxville personal injury attorneys at Fox Willis Burnette, PLLC for help today if you are injured as a result of another person or business’ negligent or careless acts.



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