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Victims of drunk driving or DUI auto accidents in Delaware often want to know whether they have legal recourse beyond the drunk driver. If the drunk driver was served alcohol at a public establishment like a bar or restaurant, can that establishment be held liable? Alternatively, if the drunk driver was coming from a house party, is the homeowner liable?

Related: Impaired/Drunk Driving Auto Accidents in Delaware

In Delaware, both of these questions will probably be “no.” That’s because Delaware courts do not recognize causes of action for dram shop or social host liability.

However, it is important to note that laws can and do change. In addition, the underlying facts of a DUI auto injury case may justify filing a dram shop lawsuit. For example, a driver consumes alcohol at a bar in Pennsylvania, then drives across the state line and causes a serious DUI car accident in Delaware. Because Pennsylvania law recognizes dram shop liability, there may be a valid dram shop liability case in Pennsylvania.

Dram Shop Liability in Delaware DUI Injury Cases

Dram shop liability refers to liability of liquor service establishments for negligence in serving alcohol. The typical example involves liability of a bar or restaurant for negligently serving alcohol to a customer (i.e., serving alcohol to a minor or serving alcohol to someone who is visibly intoxicated), who later causes a drunk driving car accident.

While some neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey recognize an establishment’s liability for a DUI auto accident, Delaware law does not recognize dram shop liability.

Social Host Liability in Delaware DUI Accident Cases

Likewise, Delaware courts will not recognize liability of a homeowner for negligence in serving alcohol to a house guest who later causes a DUI auto accident.

In 2007, the Delaware Supreme Court considered both of these issues when a surviving spouse brought a case against a bar and homeowner in Shea v. Matassa et al.

In that case, the drunk driver first attended a party at a relative’s home where he consumed alcohol and later drank more alcohol at a bar in Rehoboth Beach. He then caused a serious car accident with an on-duty state police officer. Both were killed in the collision.

The officer’s widow brought a lawsuit against both the homeowner who hosted the party and the bar owner. At the trial level, her case was dismissed. On appeal, the widow argued that the court should recognize both causes of action (dram shop and social host liability). Noting that dram shop liability and social host liability issues are better left to the legislature, the court refused to recognize either cause of action.

Since the Shea case, the Delaware legislature considered, albeit briefly, whether to enact a dram shop law. Proposed in 2010, Senate Bill 243 would have created dram shop liability of bars and restaurants in situations where there was intentional or reckless conduct. However, the bill died in chamber. This isn’t the first time the legislature considered passing a dram shop law. In 2003, the legislature also considered passing a dram shop liability law. Similarly, that bill died in chamber.

The future of dram shop liability and social host liability in Delaware does not look bright. However, as discussed above, laws change. If you support dram shop liability, please be sure so let your local legislators know. You can click here for a list of Delaware state legislators.

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Knepper & Stratton – Delaware Car Accident & Injury Law Firm

For 30 years, our lawyers have been fighting for the legal rights of residents of Delaware who are injured in auto accidents. Contact Mr. Knepper for a free case review. (302) 658-1717

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