Dram Shop Laws and Liability in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, when you own or operate an alcohol establishment, you’re already at least aware of potential civil and criminal liability - even if you’ve never had to deal with it. Under civil liability laws, are Dram Shop Laws, still very much enforced in Pennsylvania. So, what are Dram Shop Laws? What’s a Dram Shop? What the heck is a Dram, anyways? You might have heard of cases going down in PA, when a patron or other citizen is harmed or even loses their life, and an establishment is taken to court. What you might not know is the history behind these laws and why they even exist. So, let’s take a look - because it turns out the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania played a legendary role in the history of alcohol in America.

A Brief History of Dram Shop Laws
First, what is a “dram”? It seems most known languages in western civilization; including ancient Greek and Roman, Syrian, Arabic and Armenian (and possibly unwritten languages before that) used a form of this word. If you think about it, that’s a testament to how incredibly important alcohol and the regulation and payment of it, have been to human civilization. Literally, the Code of Hammurabi in 2,300 B.C. regulates the price and dispensation of alcohol. The closest relative to the modern English term is the Latin “dragma” or “drachme”, then Old French “drame” to the Late Middle English (circa 1400s) “dram”. England is where “dram shops” came into existence (by that name), where gin was sold by the dram (usually just a spoonful). In the mid-1700s, England experienced what is now referred to as “The Gin Craze”. To make a long story short, the Gin phenomenon began with a new King, heavy import tariffs on popular French wine (known as “port”) and a lift on all distilling rules and regulations. Now anyone could distill spirits, and it was cheaper than brewing beer (which was previously the most popular beverage). So, began in England a time of chaos and tragedy some have likened to the crack epidemic in urban American in the 1980s. People were losing their minds and their lives. So, England (in phased laws because some of the first ones had to be repealed, failing badly) decided to start heavily regulating both production and consumption, including who makes alcohol, who sells, distributes, or serves alcohol, when, and on what kind of premises. And of course, with that, went the regulation of the possible social effects of overconsumption of alcohol itself - accidents and crime.

The Connection to the Modern Day
Much of American Federal and State Law has its roots in English Common Law. In 1790, the new American government was trying to establish itself (remember we had only just achieved independence from Britain in 1776, and the Constitution wasn’t ratified until 1788). Three short years later in 1791, trying to gain back some of the huge expenditures incurred in the war, the Federal government decided to impose an excise tax on all distilled spirits. To make a long story short, folks didn’t like that too much. It favored large producers over smaller distillers in many ways, and it was especially hated in the western frontier - and this is where it got interesting. During The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, people of the western counties of Pennsylvania staged a revolt - arguing that the tax was discriminatory and favored rich urban people while punishing poorer rural citizens. Armed mobs of locals tarred and feathered federal tax agents, attacked postal carriers and other federal personnel (or anyone thought to side with the government on the issue), and eventually amassed approximately 7,000 men to march on Pittsburgh. George Washington (after failing to quash the uprising peacefully) eventually raised a militia of nearly 13,000 men to march on Western Pennsylvania. Met with anger but no violence, some suspects were rounded up, but only two were found guilty (and later pardoned by Washington). The Whiskey tax remained in effect until 1802 but was then repealed because it was still impossible to collect.

So That’s Interesting But…
What does that have to do with Dram Shop liability laws? Well, just like the regulation of alcohol came from England, so did Dram Shop liability laws - in the early 1800s. Because governments eventually realized that folks were going to make and consume alcohol, the only option was to try to protect the public in the event that alcohol caused an accident - or worse, a fatality. Back in England these laws were mostly to protect women and children when men were the sole breadwinners, and mostly pertained to accidents on roads and highways. Dram Shop law theory is the same today. To protect the public from the potentially dangerous actions of overconsumption or over serving or selling to an intoxicated patron. If an establishment has unlawfully served an intoxicated person (or a minor) and that person leaves the establishment and commits a crime (accident or otherwise), IF it can be proven in a civil court that the establishment broke the law, the establishment itself can be liable for damages. For example, a bartender serves a visibly intoxicated guest another couple of rounds and he/she causes a fight in the bar, or a car accident in which another party is injured - it comes back to the bartender AND the licensee. In effect, that causal liability provides a serious incentive for the establishment to practice safe and responsible serving and selling.

Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Laws
Under Pennsylvania Liquor Code, liability is defined in 47 Pa. Stat. § 4-497. However, it’s important to mention civil liability falls outside the Liquor Code. It’s so tricky in fact, that the PLCB actually recommends licensees to immediately contact legal representation in the event of a civil suit. Read our blogs “Selling to Minors in Pennsylvania - PLCB Guidelines & Consequences” and “Undercover Compliance Checks - PLCB Rules and BLCE Enforcement Tactics” for a lot more information on which agencies govern which aspects of regulation and/or enforcement. Now, to prove a Dram Shop liability case, there must be sufficient proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) in a civil trial that the licensee’s establishment knowingly served or sold alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person (or a minor). This “Judicial Interpretation of Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Law” published by the American Journal of Academic and Business Ethics does a great job explaining the finer points, and gives a lot of great examples of different cases from Pennsylvania’s judicial history. Oftentimes the conundrum is that if a licensee is found guilty under the Liquor Code, the civil Dram Shop case now has more proof of unlawful behavior on the part of the establishment. Similarly, if found guilty in a civil case, there must have been enough proof shown that the establishment (or an employee “agent” of said establishment) violated the law. So, it can get confusing. It’s worth mentioning that some states still have Dram Shop laws on the books but don’t necessarily enforce them - PA’s not one of those states. Pennsylvania DOES enforce its Dram Shop liability laws. Pennsylvania also has what’s called a “social host liability law” which is also enforced.

Here are the main points. 1) People are always going to consume alcohol in some form or fashion. 2) Governments have tried every which way to regulate it - trying to balance the interests of both the individual and our American economy against the safety of the public at large. 3) We know that certain restrictive laws and deterrents don’t work (hello, Western Pennsylvania). 4) What we rely on now are civil and criminal laws to protect the public and deter dangerous individual behavior while consuming alcohol, and to hold people accountable in the event that an incident occurs. 5) It goes straight back to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We can’t all enjoy those freedoms if irresponsible folks are messing it up for the rest of us. If ALL of us work together to make sure our server/sellers, manufacturers, distributors, bouncers, doormen (best yet, ALL employees) are properly trained - you and your patrons won’t have to worry about irresponsible or dangerous infractions of the law in your establishment, and we can all enjoy ourselves responsibly.

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