Injury or death caused by a drunk driver is perhaps the most upsetting, anger-provoking of all kinds of personal injury cases. The thought of an innocent victim suffering serious or fatal injury at the hands of an irresponsible individual can evoke outrage among members of the community. At Zalman, Schnurman & Miner P.C., we aggressively pursue claims against irresponsible drinkers and the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that improperly serve them. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, drunk drivers killed nearly 10,000 people in 2011. Although the law can never replace a loved one, it does provide means of recovery for victims. Victims can sue the drunk driver under the general laws of negligence, but often the drunk driver is either uninsured or underinsured and has few, if any, assets to support a lawsuit.
Even if it is not possible or practical to start a lawsuit against the drunk driver, it may be possible to bring a lawsuit against the person who provided alcoholic beverages to the drunk driver. Under New York law, people who serve alcoholic beverages may be held responsible for the injuries suffered by victims of drunk drivers. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law §§ 11-100, 11-101. Liability may be imposed under New York's "Dram Shop" laws or under the general laws of negligence. "Dram Shop" laws ("dram" was once a common term for "liquor") are laws that impose civil liability upon sellers of alcoholic beverages when they sell alcohol to persons under the legal drinking age or to persons who are already obviously intoxicated. To be successful in a lawsuit against a seller of alcoholic beverages, the lawyer for the victim (or the victim's family) must establish that the drunk driver was sold liquor when the driver was noticeably drunk or was known to the seller to be a habitual drunkard. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law §11-101. If the drunk driver is under the age of 21, the case against a seller of alcoholic beverages is easier to prove. In that circumstance, proof of the sale of alcoholic beverages to someone under age who causes an accident is enough to hold the seller liable for the resulting injuries. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law §11-100.
In New York, social hosts (for example, people who have a private party in their home or at their place of business) can also be held liable for injuries caused by a drunk driver. Although a social host is not required to know how much liquor each guest can tolerate before becoming drunk, a social host cannot serve liquor to a person known to be drunk if the social host has reason to believe that the intoxicated person will be driving a motor vehicle. In addition, a social host will be found liable for any injuries to the victims of a drunk driver if the host assisted in procuring liquor for a person under the age of 21 or served liquor to such a person. Rusy v. Reye, 91 N.Y.2d 355 (1998).