Are Bar Owners Liable for Car Accidents Caused by Intoxicated Patrons?


This guest post is from Mr. Kirk McCormick, who is a partner at McCormick & Murphy, P.C. The article refers to Colorado laws, but Texas laws are similar in many respects.

Each year, police in Colorado apprehend tens of thousands of drunk drivers. But a DUI arrest often comes too late – many occur after serious or even fatal accidents. The law punishes those who drive drunk. But what about the bars that serve drunk drivers before they hit the road?

In April 2013, three people were killed when an Audi collided head-on with a semitrailer on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado at 5:30 a.m. It was later revealed that the driver of the vehicle, 18 year-old Brianda Zavala, was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash. Her two passengers, 16 year-old Jennifer Nevarez and 24 year-old Albino Ortiz-Monge were not wearing seatbelts. All three died at the scene of the accident.

This tragic event is now at the heart of a wrongful death lawsuit. In September, the parents of Jennifer Navarez filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Bayou Cajun Restaurant and Bar and at least one of its bartenders. The Navarez family alleges that the bar served alcohol to driver Brianda Zavala several hours prior to the accident. Thus, according to the complaint, the bar should be found liable for Jennifer’s death.

A highway patrol report revealed that Zavala’s blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit – 0.241 – around the time of the accident. Witnesses also indicated that she and her passengers may have continued drinking at a private residence after leaving the bar, which closed at 2:00 a.m.

Can the Bayou Cajun Restaurant and Bar be held liable for the loss of Navarez’s life? Colorado is one of several states that have enacted what is known as a “Dram Shop Law.” This means that bar owners, social hosts, and alcohol serves can be held civilly liable for a drunk-driving accident involving one of their patrons or guests.

There are certain requirements that plaintiffs must meet in order to recover under the Dram Shop Law in Colorado. First, they must be able to demonstrate that the defendant consciously served alcohol to a drunk patron, guest, or minor who then went on to cause an accident. The plaintiffs must also file their lawsuit within a year of the time at which the alcohol was served. Finally, they can typically only recover $150,000 in damages.

At the time of this post’s publication, the Navarez case has not been heard by a court, and there is a possibility that the parties will settle the suit. But because Zavala (the driver) was not of legal drinking age at the time of the accident, the Bayou Cajun Restaurant and Bar may be found liable for the death of her 16 year-old passenger.

This case should serve as a reminder to anyone who serves alcohol: carefully check the photo identification of patrons and guests. Also, never over-serve alcohol. This error may be deadly.

For more information on dram shop laws and social host liability, visit the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website.

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