Can New Jersey taverns face liability for drunk driving accidents?

According to numbers released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), during a five-year period from 2007 through 2011, there were an alarming 852 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in New Jersey. In fact, 22 deaths could be attributed to alcohol-impaired drivers in Essex County alone in 2011.

Sadly, despite the harsh penalties for drunk driving convictions in New Jersey, intoxicated motorists continue to get behind the wheel with little concern for their safety or the safety of others. In those tragic instances in which these intoxicated drivers do in fact cause drunk driving accidents on New Jersey roadways, victims injured in these accidents need to be aware of the remedies available to them.

For instance, while most New Jerseyans are aware that they may be able to file suit against the drunk driver that actually injured them, many may not know that the taverns and bars that over served the intoxicated driver in the first place may also be liable in certain circumstances – which is more commonly known as Dram Shop liability.

Evolution of New Jersey Dram Shop Laws

Interestingly, New Jersey is a bit different from most states in that its Dram Shop liability was originally established by common-law and not statute. Indeed, beginning in 1959 the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized a victim’s right to hold negligent taverns liable for injuries caused to them by intoxicated bar patrons.

Then, in 1987, lawmakers essentially codified New Jersey common-law when they passed the “New Jersey Licensed Alcoholic Beverage Server Fair Liability Act.” Specifically, this Act states that those licensed to serve alcohol in New Jersey – such as taverns and bars – will be “deemed” negligent if they serve alcohol to a “visibly intoxicated person” or a minor.

Similar to common-law, the Act also expressly permits a third-party victim to recover damages from a tavern or bar if:

  • The tavern, bar or server is deemed negligent by serving alcohol to a minor or visibly intoxicated patron;
  • The victim’s injuries was proximately caused by the negligent service of alcohol; and
  • The victim’s injuries was a “foreseeable consequence” of the negligent service of alcohol

It is important to note, however, that Dram Shop liability is subject to the principles of comparative negligence in New Jersey. In essence, this means that if fault for drunk driving accident injuries can be apportioned between multiple parties – for example, between the drunk driver and the tavern – then damages will also be apportioned to the extent of each party’s fault. For instance, if a jury determines that a tavern is only 50 percent at fault, it will only be liable for 50 percent of the damages suffered by a victim.

As this article demonstrates, the law in New Jersey regarding Dram Shop liability can be quite complex. Accordingly, if you or a loved one has been injured by a drunk driver and believe a tavern or bar may be partially to blame, it is important to contact a knowledgeable drunk driving accident attorney in order to discover what your rights and options may be given your circumstances.

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