Under New York law, driving while intoxicated is recognized as a failure
to fulfill the legal responsibility, which the driver owes to their passengers
and other motorists, to operate the vehicle safely. As a result, a drunk
driver will be held criminally accountable for his or her actions and
may also be found civily liable in punitive damages for injures to another
person or damage caused to property. In terms of civil liability, those
who were harmed by the drunk driver's acts also can sue him or her
to recover for their losses. These losses can include medical bills, property
damage and lost wages, among others. Typically, anyone directly harmed
by the driver, such as pedestrians, other motorists and passengers, can
bring a civil action. If the accident resulted in a fatality, the family
and/or estate of the deceased may bring a wrongful death claim against
the driver as well as any third parties to the action.
Prior to New York’s enactment of the "Dram Shop" Act, an
intoxicated individual was held solely liable for any injuries caused
by or stemming from their intoxicated state. However, an exception to
this rule has been established under New York Obligations Law sections
11-100 and 11-101 (also known as the "Dram Shop" law), by providing
a cause of action against third parties who can be held accountable for
the drunk individual’s intoxicated state. The Dram Shop law addresses
such third parties as persons who unlawfully sold alcohol to someone under
the legal drinking age or to any third party who assisted in procuring
(or continually serving) a visibly intoxicated person. This particular
conduct is defined more specifically under New York Alcoholic Beverage
Control Law section 65, which provides "that no person shall sell,
deliver, or give away or cause to permit or procured to be sold, any alcoholic
beverages to 1) any person, actually or apparently under twenty-one years
old as well as 2) any visibly intoxicated person."
The Dram Shop law typically applies to the third party business that sold
the alcohol to the intoxicated individual, such as a bar, restaurant,
and even liquor stores.
Other third parties that may be held liable for injuries caused by drunk
Passengers — if the passenger of the drunk driver aided and abetted
the driver in becoming intoxicated, he or she may be liable
Police officers — if the officer had an opportunity to prevent a
drunk driver from driving and failed to act, he or she may be liable.
This could include a situation where an officer pulled over a drunk driver,
but did not arrest the driver, who later injured someone in a drunk driving accident.
Employers — in some limited situations, an employer may be held liable
for the acts of an intoxicated employee. In some cases, employers have
been held liable because the court reasoned the employer is in a position
to control consumption and distribution of alcohol at work-related events.
However, unless a company car was involved or the accident occurred on
the employer's property or in furtherance of the employee's work
duties, many courts have rejected employer liability for injuries caused
in an employee's drunk driving accident.
Despite the liability placed on these individuals under the Dram Shop law,
it is important to note that recovery under this law requires proof that
the third party vendor/individual knowingly provided the alcohol and that
the other person wasvisibly intoxicated at the time of receipt, unless the person is under-age where
visible intoxication is not necessary. Proof of such "visible"
signs may include slurred speech and/or difficulty walking or controlling
body movements typically associated with intoxication. However, if these
factors are successfully proven, the plaintiff will likely obtain recovery
for the injuries sustained as a result of the drunk driving incident.
Taken as a whole, the Dram Shop law has opened the door to recovery for
innocently injured plaintiffs by permitting claims against the establishments
that provided alcohol to the intoxicated individual in addition to the
claim against the drunk driver, whose intoxicated state was the direct
cause of the injury at issue. The law’s purpose is to protect parties
from injury and reduce accidents by discouraging the service of alcohol
to underage or intoxicated persons.