What is a dram shop and when may a bar be sued for a patron’s drunken behavior?

The quick answer is that a dram shop is a bar that sells booze. In Iowa, and many other states a bar can be sued if they serve a patron too much alcohol or serve them when they are already drunk. If the drunk goes out and injures someone else that other person can sue the bar. This hasn’t always been the case. Many years ago the Courts decided that selling liquor couldn’t cause an accident. It wasn’t until states passed dram shop laws did the causal connection become a legal conclusion.

What went wrong with the evidence? Or was it the deliberations that went aerie?

Dram shop laws in many states now allow those injured to sue the bar that sued the booze. This placed pressure on the bars to watch their patrons and how much they were drinking or to get the patrons to accept a ride home. Of course as we know it’s a car accident that normally is the cause of injury to unsuspecting people. But sometimes it’s not a car accident but a bar fight. This brings us to the story printed in the Des Moines Register on February 13, 2010 about the former editor of the Daily Iowegian getting beat up at a bar in Appanoose County and having the jury reject his dram shop claim.  Apparently a couple of patrons of the bar beat him up; that was the thing that allegedly caused the injury to the former editor. In this case it appears the jury rejected his claim because evidence was produced that allowed the argument there was another reason for him getting beat up; a reason other than just being drunk. The lawyer for the injured man is quoted as saying there was another reason for the brawl, aside from just being drunk.

"This was not an ordinary barroom brawl," said Guy Cook, the bar's lawyer. "This was a criminal act of retribution for a story a reporter had written. Certainly, no one should have this happen to them for just doing their job. But the reporter's attempt to shift blame to Gordie's is wrong."

This Jury Missed A Valuable Opportunity to Establish Acceptable Conduct

The Register writes the jury rejected the dram shop claim and found for the bar. That sort of surprised me; just because the assailants had another reason for doing what they did shouldn’t excuse their drunken behavior. After all, one has to wonder if they had not been under the influence of alcohol whether cooler heads would have prevailed persuading them to leave the man alone.

Juries do odd things especially in small counties where the local tavern seems to have greater importance as a social meeting place.  In this instance in my opinion the jury missed the issue or allowed themselves to be sidetracked with a foolish argument that fails to set a viable community standard for acceptable conduct. After all, a drunken state isn't supposed to be a community standard. The jury should consider the standard it sets along with the message it send to younger adults and teens.

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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