Dram Shop Laws in Washington State

Washington state law allows victims of drunk driving collisions to recover financial compensation from the driver who is found to be responsible for causing the collision. If you are injured in a crash with a drunk driver, you might also feel that a bar, restaurant, or other type of establishment which served alcohol to the intoxicated driver should face punishment for their behavior as well. 

In Washington state, a certain set of laws - generally called "dram shop" laws - may permit accident victims to recover financial compensation from establishments if it can be proven that the establishment negligently overserved liquor or alcohol to the at-fault driver. 

Washington's Dram Shop Law

"Dram shop" law is a body of law asserting liability to establishments whom serves alcohol. In general, dram shop laws declare liability to establishments arising out of the sale of alcohol to evidently intoxicated persons who consequently injure or cause death to a third party as a result of the alcohol, such as in the event of a car accident. Dram shop laws are aimed at reducing the frequency of alcohol-related crashes by putting pressure on establishments which serve alcohol.

The statistics support this approach to preventing drunk driving collisions. For example, in Texas after a liability case was filed in 1983, there was a decrease in single vehicle nighttime crashes by 6.5%. Similarly, in 1984 after another case was filed, this number decreased by another 5.3%. Other comparable studies also concluded the same deterrent effect from dram shop liability, ranging from three to five percent.

The risk of being held liable for a drunk driving crash makes it in the establishment’s best interest to serve patrons responsibility in order to avoid the financial burden of a lawsuit. Dram shop laws amplify exposure of the impacts of over-serving. Studies show that in states that have high level of dram shop liability, more servers and managers are aware of these liabilities. There is also more publicity surrounding the liability that establishments have.

Law Also Affects Civil Liability

Washington state does not currently have a dram shop statute, but the state does have laws that specifically prohibit the sale of alcohol to individuals who are "apparently under the influence of liquor." According to RCW § 66.44.200:

RCW 66.44.200

Sales to persons apparently under the influence of liquor—Purchases or consumption by persons apparently under the influence of liquor on licensed premises—Penalty—Notice—Separation of actions.

(1) No person shall sell any liquor to any person apparently under the influence of liquor.
(2)(a) No person who is apparently under the influence of liquor may purchase or consume liquor on any premises licensed by the board.
(b) A violation of this subsection is an infraction punishable by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.
(c) A defendant's intoxication may not be used as a defense in an action under this subsection.
(d) Until July 1, 2000, every establishment licensed under RCW 66.24.330 or 66.24.420 shall conspicuously post in the establishment notice of the prohibition against the purchase or consumption of liquor under this subsection.
(3) An administrative action for violation of subsection (1) of this section and an infraction issued for violation of subsection (2) of this section arising out of the same incident are separate actions and the outcome of one shall not determine the outcome of the other.

This law was designed to deter alcohol-friendly establishments from providing already-impaired patrons with more alcohol, which further fuels the level of intoxication and puts drivers on the road at risk. The law specifically focuses on the criminal culpability and imposition of a penalty for someone to be found in violation of the law. 

However, the Washington Supreme Court addressed the issue of civil liability and financial responsibility on the personal injury side of things in a significant ruling back in 2004. The court made a significant ruling in Barrett v. Lucky Seven Saloon, a case which involved a bar patron who had consumed a significant amount of alcohol and then proceeded to drive home. The driver fell asleep behind the wheel, crossed the centerline. and crashed into another car, leaving one passenger permanently disabled by the crash. The plaintiff tried to hold Lucky Seven Saloon liable for allowing the driver to consume three full pitchers of beer during his time at the bar. 

The defense in that case argued that RCW 66.44.200 only sought to impose a fine and potential criminal charges for overserving patrons and did not apply to any potential civil liability. The high court that the RCW does place civil liability on a bartender who is found to violate the RCW, given that the plaintiff can prove that the patron appeared to be intoxicated at the time of being served. 

Pursuing a Dram Shop Claim in Washington

Dram shop laws, however, do not reduce personal responsibility by any means. Although dram shop laws were put into place to hold establishment’s accountable for over serving, this still does not void the personal responsibility of refraining from drinking and driving. The individual whom drinks and drives is still responsible, both criminally and civilly. These penalties are put in place in so that establishments and individuals could both recognize the dangers of over-serving and over-consuming.

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