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Dram Shop Act: Liability for Sale to a Minor


In North Carolina, it is illegal to sell alcohol to a minor. To hold sellers accountable, North Carolina has created a law that can makes Dram Shops liable if they sell alcohol to a minor and that results in an injury because of the underaged driver’s intoxication. Under North Carolina General Statute 18B-121 (2009):

An aggrieved party has a claim for relief for damages against a permittee or local Alcoholic Beverage Control Board if:

(1) The permittee or his agent or employee or the local board or its agent or employee negligently sold or furnished an alcoholic beverage to an underage person; and

(2) The consumption of the alcoholic beverage that was sold or furnished to an underage person caused or contributed to, in whole or in part, an underage driver’s being subject to an impairing substance within the meaning of G.S. 20-138.1 at the time of the injury; and

(3) The injury that resulted was proximately caused by the underage driver’s negligent operation of a vehicle while so impaired.

The North Carolina Supreme Court interprets this statute to mean, “an aggrieved party has a claim against a ‘permittee or local Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’ if the party shows that the seller ‘negligently sold or furnished an alcoholic beverage to an underage person,’ that consumption of the beverage caused or contributed to the underage driver’s impairment, and that the resulting injury was ‘proximately caused by the underage driver’s negligent operation of a vehicle while so impaired.’” Estate of Mullis by Dixon v. Monroe Oil Co., Inc., 249 N.C. 196, 200-01 (1998). To better understand this law, let’s look at the sections in bold one by one.

An Aggrieved Party

It is important to know what this statute means by “aggrieved party”. N.C. Gen. Stat § 18B-120 defined “aggrieved party” as “a person who sustains an injury as a consequence of the actions of the underage person, but does not include the underage person or a person who aided or abetted in the sale of furnishing to the underage person.” As North Carolina recognizes contributory negligence, the two parties that were negligent (the seller and the underaged driver) are excluded from bringing claims under the Dram Shop Act. However, in addition to anyone injured by the underaged, intoxicated driver’s negligence, the parents of the underaged driver also fall under the definition of “aggrieved party” in § 18B-120. See Storch v. Winn-Dixie Charlotte, Inc., 149 N.C. App. 478 (2002). As “injury” can be not only personal injury but also property loss, the parents may have a claim against the Dram Shop for the damage to the vehicle involved in the accident. This does not extend to the parents serving as the representative of the minor’s estate though, as this would be considered recovery for the underage person which is barred by the statute.

Negligently Sold or Furnished Alcohol To a Minor

Under this statute a Dram Shop may be held liable for negligently furnishing alcohol to a minor. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that the Dram Shop knew or should have known that the guest was underaged. For instance, a showing that the Dram Shop failed to check the underaged driver’s ID as required by North Carolina Alcohol Laws would be a way to prove negligence. The Dram Shop is then allowed an opportunity to rebut this claim of negligence, such as in cases where the minor lied about their age or possessed a fake ID. However, these rebuttals are not determinative.

According to the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control, Dram Shops must be on the lookout for fake IDS. To spot a fake ID a Dram Shop agent should compare the photograph and the physical description to the person providing ID, look for holograms and other security features, compare the large picture with the watermark to see if they match, and if in doubt based on any of these the Dram Shop should simply refuse to sell. A Plaintiff in a dram shop claim may be able to point to these discrepancy to say that even though the minor used a fake ID, the dram shop agent knew or should have known that it was fake and should not have sold under North Carolina law.

Proximately Caused

A plaintiff bringing a claim under the Dram Shop Act must also show that the sale of alcohol to a minor was the proximate cause of the resulting injury. To establish proximate cause, a plaintiff does not have to prove that the sale was the only cause of the accident but instead must show that the sale of alcohol to the minor was a substantial factor. Therefore, what the plaintiff needs to prove is that the sale of alcohol was a large factor behind the accident and not just a minor one. For example, remoteness of the sale to the accident may break the causal chain because so many other factors lie between the sale of alcohol to a minor and the accident.

In sum, if you were injured as a result of an intoxicated, minor driver you may have a claim against the seller of the alcohol. To bring a claim, you will need to be able to show that the driver was a minor, that the licensee that sold the minor alcohol new or should have known the individual was a minor, and that the alcohol was a substantial factor in your injury.  For more information about how to bring a claim in North Carolina under negligence, please click here.

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