Drunk Driving Accidents

We’ve all seen the signs in bars and convenience stores announcing that the management will not serve people who are visibly intoxicated. That’s a wise idea in terms of public safety – but in Oregon, it is also the law.

Under Oregon’s Dram Shop law, a bartender or store clerk who serves or sells alcohol to any person who is, or appears to be, visibly impaired can be held liable for damage the customer later causes – an Oregon wrongful death via a car accident, for example. This civil liability is above and beyond the Class A criminal misdemeanor penalties a server risks when serving someone who is visibly impaired.

Note that word: “impaired.” Oregon law says “impaired” (rather than “drunk”) as a way of reminding us that alcohol is not the only substance you should not have in your system when getting behind the wheel or otherwise heading out into society. “Impaired” can mean drunk – but it can also mean being strung out on drugs, be they over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs. Common signs of visible impairment include (but aren't limited to) slurred speech, staggering/unstable gait, bloodshot eyes, a decline in manual coordination, delayed reaction responses, or unusually/inappropriately aggressive or loud behavior.

Oregon’s dram shop law is especially tough because serving an impaired customer is an offense no waiter, waitress, bartender, or liquor store clerk has an excuse for making. It has been more than 25 years since Oregon became the first state in the nation to require special training for anyone who serves alcohol as part of their job. Oregon’s servers know the law and have to be retested on it every five years. That leaves little room to explain away irresponsible -- or illegal -- behavior.

In addition to the law that covers licensed commercial servers of alcohol ("dram shops"), Oregon also has tough laws protecting people harmed by private parties who served alcohol ("social hosts.") In Washington, the law generally only holds social hosts culpable if they served alcohol to an underage (under 21) guest. By contrast, Oregon law says that social hosts can be held liable for crash injuries caused by one of their guests if that guest was under 21 or was "visibly intoxicated," and the host served them anyway.

The human toll of alcohol-related crashes is, thankfully, declining. According to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, more than 320 died in Oregon in 1982 in alcohol-related auto accidents, which represented more than 60% of the state's total crash-related deaths that year. In 2019, that number had dipped to 167, and the percentage was down to 34%. While much improved from 1982, these figures are still far too high.

Impaired driving accidents often result in major or even fatal harm for their victims. That's why a dram shop (or social host) claim may be an essential part of a victim's civil court action. Many times, the impaired drivers who cause these catastrophic crashes are only minimally insured or aren't insured at all. A few tens of thousands of dollars of coverage won't fully compensate someone who has suffered extensive permanent damage (or the family of someone who died in an impaired driving accident.)

A dram shop claim allows the victim to seek compensation from the business that served the impaired driver. That's important in two ways. One, the business that served the at-fault driver likely has significantly more assets than the driver. Two, the laws regarding insurance coverage are different. For example, state law requires all licensed commercial providers of alcohol to carry liquor liability insurance of at least $300,000.

As a national advertising campaign has emphasized in recent years: ‘buzzed driving is drunk driving.’ If you or someone you love has been injured by an impaired driver, you owe it to yourself to ask how such an irresponsible person wound up behind the wheel in the first place, and to seek accountability from those whose actions aided and facilitated the driver’s recklessness.

The accountability demanded by Oregon’s dram shop law stems, in part, from the recognition that drunk people are not capable of making sound judgments. Recognizing that fact shifts a degree of responsibility back to the people who sell beer, wine, and liquor. When they fail to live up to that responsibility, an Oregon dram shop violations attorney from Kaplan Law LLC can be a victim’s most important ally in his or her fight for justice.

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