Think before you serve a drink—dram shop laws in North Carolina

Bars, restaurants, and social hosts can be held liable under dram shop laws for serving alcohol to intoxicated guests or customers that later cause an accident due to being intoxicated.

Photo by WXII 12.

Hundreds of people die each year from wrong-way car accidents.  According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than sixty percent of wrong-way accidents are caused by drivers who are impaired by alcohol.   With these accidents on the rise, researchers have been trying to figure out a way to use technology to prevent wrong-way crashes.  In the meantime, dram laws are being used to prosecute and hold those responsible for serving alcohol to the drivers causing the accidents.

Chandler Kania, student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used a fake ID at two different bars in Chapel Hill before he got behind the car and drove north in the southbound lanes and crashed with another car

Recently, wrong-way accidents due to drunk drivers have unfortunately captured the media’s attention in North Carolina.  On July 19, 2015, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student, Chandler Kania, was charged with three counts of second-degree murder, three counts of felony death by motor vehicle, one count of felony serious injury by motor vehicle, driving while impaired, driving the wrong on the interstate, careless and reckless driving, driving after consuming alcohol as a minor, possession of alcohol by a minor, and having an open container of alcohol in the car.

Kania used a fake ID at two different bars; He’s Not Here and La Residence, in Chapel Hill before getting behind the wheel of a car.  He drove north in the southbound lanes for about six miles before he crashed into another car.  He killed three of the passengers in the car and severely injured another.  Kania will be held accountable for the three deaths, but the question remains as to whether the two bars that served Kania the alcohol will be held responsible as well.

North Carolina Appellate Courts hold employers and businesses liable if the sale was negligent

Thirty states have dram shop laws that hold places like restaurants, bars, and liquor stores responsible for selling or serving alcohol to those who cause injury or death due to their intoxication.  In North Carolina under N.C.G.S. § 18B-305(a), it is unlawful “for a permittee or his employee or for an ABC store employee to knowingly sell or give alcoholic beverages to any person who is intoxicated.”  Even though the language requires a “knowing” mental state, meaning the sale needs to be intentional, North Carolina Appellate Courts hold employers and businesses liable if the sale was negligent.

Additionally, under N.C.G.S. § 18B-121, vendors are liable for drunk driving injuries and fatalities if the vendor negligently sold alcohol to a minor; the minor caused a car accident while under the influence of the alcohol served or sold; and the accident and resulting injuries were proximately caused by the underage driver’s negligent driving while impaired.  Therefore, if the vendor, at the time of the sale, knew or “in the exercise of reasonable care” should have known, the customer was intoxicated, the vendor will be held liable for damages caused by the drunk driver to the third party.  This is not a strict liability crime.  Instead, the plaintiff must prove that the sale was negligent.

Dram shop laws apply to social hosts as well.  Under Hart v. Ivey, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that hosts of a party could be held liable for serving alcohol to minors who later cause an accident from being intoxicated.  Even though Hart dealt with minors, the language in the case indicates that hosts can be liable for intoxicated adult guests as well.

Overall, North Carolina statutes provide limited liability for vendors who sell alcohol to intoxicated results and full liability for selling alcohol to intoxicated minors.  As for social hosts, there is limited liability for the hosts when they serve alcohol to both minors and adults.

The issue most frequently litigated in dram shop cases is whether the vendor knew or should have known the person was intoxicated at the time of the sale

If suing a restaurant or bar, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that the sale of the alcoholic beverage to the underage person was negligent.  This can be difficult to prove without concrete evidence.  According to N.C.G.S. § 18B-122, serving a minor alcohol without requesting to see their ID first is admissible as evidence of negligence.  On the other hand, the defendant is able to bring into evidence proof of “good practices”—including but not limited to, instructing employees about the law and the sale of alcoholic beverages and training employees to check for fake IDs—to show that the vendor was not negligent.  If a customer is unable to show proper identification, the vendor or employee of the vendor must refuse to sell or serve alcohol to the person.  Additionally, the vendor or employee is not held liable if they hold onto a customer’s ID for a reasonable length in time to make sure it is valid under good faith as long as they make the customer aware of the reason for their actions.

It will be up to the court to apply these North Carolina statutes to the recent incident with Chandler Kania.  A friend of Kania told officials that one of the bars, He’s Not Here, did not check Kania’s ID when he was served alcohol.  However, Kania’s ID was checked before entering into the bar.  Additionally, Kania’s roommate told ALE agents that Kania routinely consumed alcohol at these bars and has been using a fake ID for over a month now.  Therefore, Kania routinely presented false identification and misrepresented his age on more than one occasion.

The issue most frequently litigated in dram shop cases is whether the vendor knew or should have known the person was intoxicated at the time of the sale.   This is particularly where evidence is important for both parties.  The majority of people know of the typical symptoms of intoxication: slurred speech, glassy/blood shot eyes, stumbling, and change in behavior.  This evidence usually comes in the form of testimony from other customers, friends, and employees.

An intoxicated customer is not only dangerous inside the business, but outside as well

In addition to the obvious signs of intoxication, servers should also look for physical signs such as spilling, carelessness, clumsiness, unsteady walking or bumping into tables, sudden behavior changes including anger or extreme happiness, and change in speech patterns such as screaming or swearing.  These tips can all be found in the ABC Commission’s “An Overview of North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws, Rules, and Information.”  The ABC Commission warns that an intoxicated customer is not only dangerous inside the business, but outside as well.

Even with dram shop laws, car accidents, especially wrong-way accidents, are still occurring throughout the United States.  These laws have many gray areas that need to be worked out by the legislature.  Only time will tell whether the two bars will be held liable for serving Kania alcohol on the night of the accident.

Avatar photo
About Danielle Feller, Associate Editor (16 Articles)
Danielle Feller is a 2016 graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a degree in Political Science with a concentration in Law and Justice and a minor in Business Administration. Following her first year of law school, Danielle interned at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office in the Felony Unit. Following her second year of law school, Danielle interned at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Danielle is also worked as Professor Bobbi Jo Boyd's research assistant during her third year of law school.
Contact: Email