Dram Shop Lawyers

Any business serving alcohol on its premises runs the risk of potential liability for subsequently caused accidents by their patrons. On-site bar fights are common, as are self-inflicted injuries. But, when a patron leaves a commercial establishment and causes harm to someone else while intoxicated, the owner or the employees that served them liquor could be held liable under a state’s dram shop law.

If you own or operate a business that serves alcoholic beverages to patrons on the premises and are currently facing a dram shop lawsuit, contact the experienced attorneys of Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas right away. Our team of experts will discuss your situation and provide solid legal counsel on the next steps. We’ll work to formulate a defense strategy aimed at reducing or eliminating your liability.

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Property owners and managers have a risk of liability arising from incidents and accidents occurring on their premises. We frequently represent commercial and individual property owners, tenants, service providers, restaurants, hotels, general contractors, subcontractors, insurers, and other business organizations in premises liability matters.

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What is a Dram Shop Law?

Dram is an old European term commonly used to describe alcoholic beverages. A dram shop is an establishment that sells and serves liquor, usually meant for consumption on the premises. Dram shops include businesses such as bars, nightclubs, breweries, wineries, and restaurants.

Dram shop laws cover the liability of businesses selling and serving alcohol. A complex area of premises liability law, dram shop cases can be challenging to prove, and even more so to defend. Due to the possibility of substantial and aggravating damages and highly contested factual circumstances, defense counsel responding to these claims must act quickly and expertly to preserve critical evidence and witness testimony. Missouri and Illinois, and thirty other states, have specific rules about selling and serving liquor. Each state’s statutes differ from one to the next, so it’s essential to seek knowledgeable legal representation when facing a liability claim.

Missouri Dram Shop Law

In Missouri, dram shop laws apply only to businesses selling and serving alcohol meant to be consumed on-site. Therefore, the dram shop law doesn’t cover commercial entities selling alcoholic beverages in bulk, such as grocery stores, markets, convenience stores, or liquor stores. Also exempt are individuals serving alcohol at a private event, such as a backyard barbecue or wedding reception.

Within the Missouri Dram Shop Law, three things make a business liable:

  • Knowingly serving alcohol to patrons under the age of 21
  • Serving alcohol to a “visibly intoxicated” person 
  • There is “clear and convincing” evidence of the patron’s intoxication 

It’s important to note that dram shop liability doesn’t apply when no injuries occur. For example, if there is “clear and convincing” evidence that a person is “visibly intoxicated” at your business, but they don’t cause any harm, dram shop liability claims can’t be used against you. Furthermore, although the Missouri Dram Shop Law, a civil matter, wouldn’t apply if known underage drinkers are at your business, you could face criminal liability.

Illinois Dram Shop Act

The Illinois Dram Shop Law (called the Dram Shop Act) outlines that a commercial business may be held liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated person so long as:

  • You sold alcohol to the person that caused injury
  • The alcohol you sold caused or contributed to the person’s intoxication
  • The intoxication was the proximate cause of injury 

Like the Missouri Dram Shop Law, the Act in Illinois imposes liability against those who sold and served alcohol to the intoxicated person and those who own, lease, or rent the property where injuries occurred. However, the Illinois Dram Shop Act doesn’t apply if the injuries happen outside the state. For instance, if a person drank at your establishment in Illinois and then caused injuries in Michigan, you wouldn’t be liable.

Dram Shop Case Defenses

The states’ laws slightly differ, and so do possible defense strategies.

In Missouri

The Missouri Dram Shop Law has a higher burden of proof, meaning it’s harder for the plaintiff to establish your liability. For example, the concept of “visibly intoxicated” is up for interpretation since people have different ways of displaying their inebriation. Some may slur their words, lose balance quickly, or smell heavily of liquor, while others may walk and talk normally. If it wasn’t noticeable, you can’t be held liable.

Without “clear and convincing” evidence, such as witness statements, receipts, or surveillance videos, the plaintiff won’t be able to prove the perpetrator was intoxicated by the alcohol you served them. Conversely, you can use those pieces of evidence as a defense, especially when it disproves their argument.

If accused of knowingly serving alcoholic beverages to underage patrons, the most prominent factor is whether you were aware of their age. Solid defenses against this argument include leveraging surveillance videos or witness statements to prove that you checked their identification and believed it was government-issued. Although more straightforward, you must have a form of evidence to back up your claim. 

In Illinois

The Illinois Dram Shop Act only applies to incidents within the state’s borders. As such, the victim can’t hold you accountable if you sold and served alcohol to a person who consumed it at your premises but then caused injury in another state. In addition, you can use two primary defenses against claims:

  • Provocation defense – The Act bars a person from filing a claim whose injuries resulted from an altercation they were directly involved in and where they provoked the intoxicated patron.
  • Complicity defense – An injured person cannot bring a cause of action under the Act when they actively contributed to the intoxication of the person that afflicted injuries (i.e., bought them beverages, encouraged them to keep drinking, etc.).

Contact the Expert Dram Shop Liability Attorneys

The dram shop lawyers of Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas possess decades of experience representing commercial entities through mediation and, if necessary, trial. We know what it takes to defend property owners against premises liability claims successfully. Since dram shop laws differ and pose many complexities, a specialized attorney’s deep and intimate knowledge is required for a favorable outcome.

At Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas, we highly regard the courts, the Bar, and the law profession. Our decades of experience have allowed us to gain a fresh perspective on trials that few other law firms can match. We’re AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell for our solid legal ability and high ethical standards and recognized as Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers. Give us a call today to discuss your case.

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Together, the founders of GOT have tried nearly 250 jury trials to verdict. With that level of experience comes an entirely different perspective on civil litigation which few other firms can match.


Recognized by Martindale-Hubbell, the gold standard in attorney ratings, as AV rated, their highest ranking for strong legal ability and high ethical standards, along with Best Lawyers and Super Lawyers as top performers in their fields.

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