Dram Shop Laws in Washington State

For quite some time now, we have grown accustomed to state laws that are designed to prevent the over-serving of alcohol to patrons at licensed establishments. In some states, these laws are referred to as “dram shop” laws, the terminology for which stems from the early days of saloons and speakeasies which provided alcohol by the dram – a unit of measuring liquid.

Washington State Dram Shop Law

Under Washington state law (RCW 66.44.200), it is provided that “no person shall sell any liquor to any person apparently under the influence of liquor,” and furthermore that “no person who is apparently under the influence of liquor may purchase or consume liquor on any premises licensed by the board.”

Again, the goal with these laws is to prevent the over-serving of alcohol to customers who may already be too intoxicated for their own good. The explicit details of dram shop laws vary by state, and not all states have these or similar laws in effect – currently there are 37 states with dram shop laws.

One purpose for these laws is to keep already-inebriated patrons from overindulging in alcohol and being injured or killed from over-intoxication. However, perhaps the most important focus of dram shop laws is to prevent bartenders from providing more alcohol to an inebriated customer who could potentially get into a vehicle and drive away, putting other innocent drivers at risk of injury or death from a DUI collision.

To aid establishments in enforcing these laws, the RCW requires that every licensed establishment must post a notice of the prohibition of serving alcohol to patrons who are deemed intoxicated at the time. Violation of this law can place financial liability on the bartender or establishment that provided alcohol to a patron who was already visibly intoxicated.

Establishments that are licensed to sell liquor to patrons are required to properly train employees how to determine if a patron has had too much to drink. Some of the signs that bartenders should be on the look for include:

  • Slowed or slurred speech
  • Loss of basic motor skills
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Obnoxious behavior or profanity
  • Aggressiveness or emotional behavior
  • Trouble maintaining balance

Dram Shop Case Upheld by Supreme Court

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy civil cases in recent years involving dram shop laws in Washington state was after an April 2000 DUI collision in Ferndale. After a night of drinking heavily at the Bellingham Moose Lodge in Bellingham, a man named Hawkeye Kinkaid crashed into a vehicle transporting Bianca Faust and her family, killing Kinkaid and seriously injuring everyone in Faust’s car.

Christopher Faust, a 7-year-old boy present in the victims’ vehicle at the time, was so severely injured that he has been rendered a paraplegic for the remainder of his life. The family sued the lodge and the bartender who had provided the intoxicating liquor to Kinkaid before he got into the crash. Faust won the lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court, but the judgment was eventually overturned by the state Court of Appeals on the grounds that Faust had to present “specific point-in-time evidence” that Kinkaid was already visibly drunk when the establishment provided him with liquor.

However, the state Supreme Court made note that a forensic expert had determined Kinkaid likely consumed the equivalent of 21 twelve-ounce beers or 30 ounces of 80-proof liquor throughout the evening and that his blood alcohol content (BAC) was approximately .32 at the time of the crash – four times the legal limit in Washington.

The court determined that such a high level of intoxication, combined with the fact that the bartender had admitted that Kinkaid was too drunk to drive and that she eventually refused to serve him because of how intoxicated he was. However, she likely should have made that determination sooner in the evening, before he was intoxicated enough to cause this devastating crash.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the family was awarded a $14 million judgment to provide care for Christopher throughout the remainder of his life.

Dram Shop Lawsuits for DUI Crashes

So what does all this mean for victims of drunk driving accidents? Well first of all, it means that bars and establishments that serve alcohol can be held legally responsible - and therefore financially liable - for injuries and fatalities that result from a drunk driving collision, particularly if it is discovered that the establishment overserved the driver who caused the crash.

Dram shop lawsuits are not uncommon after a person has been injured or killed by a DUI collision, but pursuing a dram shop claim can be more complex than a typical personal injury case and therefore requires a higher level of investigation and collection of evidence. Because of these added complexities, it is often beneficial for victims of drunk driving crashes to consult with a personal injury attorney to determine if there is an opportunity for a dram shop claim against an establishment.

Davis Law Group has handled a number of alcohol-related motor vehicle collisions for accident victims in Washington state, some of which have also involved the pursuit of a dram shop claim. Contact us online here or call our office at 206-727-4000 if you would like to consult with our experienced attorneys about a potential dram shop claim as a result of a drunk driving accident.

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