LAWSUITS INVOLVING ALCOHOL

Alabama law contains two statutes that create causes of action relating to the sale of alcohol: the Civil Damages Act and the Dram Shop Act.  The Civil Damages act is found at Sec. 6-5-70 of the Code of Alabama.  It provides that parents or guardians of minors have a right to file a lawsuit against any person who unlawfully sells or furnishes alcohol to a minor.  The statute states that the parents may recover such damages “as the jury may assess.  In order to be liable under this law the defendant must be shown to have knowledge that the person to whom he was serving alcohol was a minor.

The courts have ruled that the Civil Damages Act is penal in nature and therefore only punitive damages can be recovered.  This law only provides a right to sue to the parents or guardian.  It does not give the minor a right to sue.  The courts have also held that where there is evidence that the seller sold alcohol to a minor without requiring the identification required by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, this is proof of notice even if the minor did not look like a minor.  The word “minor” in the statute has been held to mean a person under the age of twenty-one years.

The Dram Shop Act is found at Section 6-5-71 of the Code of Alabama.  It takes a slightly different approach from the Civil Damages Act.  The Dram Shop Act provides that basically any person who suffered physical injury or property damage because of the intoxication of any person has a right to sue any person who caused the intoxicated person to be intoxicated.  Under the Dram Shop Act the plaintiff can recover both actual damages and punitive damages.  The right to sue given by the Dram Shop Act is in favor of the person injured and also the “wife, child, parent” who might be damaged because of the intoxication event.  The statute implies that those persons are entitled to recover damages if they have been damaged through loss of their means of support.  This statute requires proof that the sale or provision of the alcohol must have been “contrary to the provisions of law.”  The Dram Shop Act is a strict liability statute.  This means that contributory negligence is not a defense.  The Dram Shop Act does not apply to social hosts who are not licensed to sell alcohol.

The consumption of alcohol can also come into play in a lawsuit for damages in which neither the Civil Damages Act or the Dram Shop Act are pled as causes of action.  This is because intoxication, especially in the context of the operation of a motor vehicle, may be evidence of wanton conduct (not just negligent conduct).  This could give rise to an award of punitive damages in addition to actual damages.

There are scientific and medical issues that frequently arise in cases involving intoxication.  These issues involve pharmacology, absorption rates, how the human body metabolizes alcohol and so forth.  It is not unusual for expert testimony to be required to help the court and the jury sort these issues out.

By enacting the statutes described above, the Alabama Legislature has clearly indicated an intention to discourage intoxication of minors or under circumstances where people can get hurt.  At Jinks, Crow and Dickson we have handled many cases involving the misuse of alcohol.  We understand the scientific and medical issues involved and are prepared to deal with them.  But by all means, never operate a motor vehicle when you have had too much to drink.  It is against the law and worse it might get you or someone else killed.

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