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What is the Missouri Dram Shop Law?

Missouri Statute 537.053 defines the requirements for dram shop liability. Although furnishing alcoholic beverages alone cannot be the proximate cause of injuries inflicted by intoxicated persons, an action may be brought by, or on behalf of, a person who suffered personal injury or death against any person licensed to sell intoxicating liquor for consumption on the premises when: (1) it is proven by clear and convincing evidence (2) that the seller knew or should have known (3) that intoxicating liquor was served to a person under the age of twenty-one years or knowingly served intoxicating liquor to a visibly intoxicated person. Voluntary intoxication is not permitted as a cause of action under Missouri Dram Shop laws, with one exception. If an individual is under the age of twenty-one and voluntarily intoxicated, an establishment owner may face liability depending on other facts and circumstances.

The Statute goes on to define “visibly intoxicated” as a person who is inebriated to such an extent that the impairment is shown by significantly uncoordinated physical action or significant physical dysfunction. Furthermore, a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) does not constitute prima facie evidence to establish that a person is visibly intoxicated, but nevertheless be admissible evidence of the person’s intoxication. Additionally, an action alleging consumption on the premises to a person under the age of twenty-one allows the seller or seller’s agent or employee to offer proof that the seller or the seller’s agent or employee required and was shown a driver’s licenses or a state or federal-issued personal identification card that appeared to be genuine and showing that the individual was at least twenty-one years of age. This offer of proof is relevant in determining the relative fault of the seller or the seller’s agent or employee in the cause of action.

History of the Missouri Dram Shop Law

In 1929, Missouri Legislature enacted the Missouri Dram Shop Act. The Act allowed for recovery by an injured person against an individual furnishing alcoholic beverages. Furnishing the beverage alone was considered the proximate cause of the injury rather than the consumption. Prior to 1929, Missouri followed common law principles – consumption was considered the proximate cause rather than the furnishing of alcoholic beverages. This means that in 1929, when the Dram Shop Act was enacted – it was a deviation from the common law. The purpose for this deviation makes more sense when one considers the other historical factors at play, namely the prohibition of alcohol.

In 1934, the Dram Shop Act was repealed, and common law principles were restored. This period of time allowed for Missouri courts to construe and shape the contours of common law principles regarding liability for individuals engaged in the sale of intoxicating liquors to be consumed on their premises. In 1983, Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District found, for the first time, a duty existed on tavern owners to refrain from serving intoxicated persons or face liability for their actions in Carver v. Shafer, 647 S.W.2d 570 (Mo. App. ED 1983). Other cases followed suit and in 1985 the Missouri legislature responded to the public policy as announced by the courts by passing Missouri Statute 537.053. The statute since then has undergone changes, but the basic principle remains the same – furnishing intoxicating beverages alone is not enough for a cause of action against a seller or seller’s agent, unless the individual is under the age of twenty-one or the individual is visibly intoxicated.

What does this mean for Missouri establishments serving alcohol on their premises?

Under the current Missouri statute, an owner of an establishment may be liable when a patron of their establishment injures another individual, is under the age of twenty-one, and does so while under the influence. With the development of technology and use of fake IDs, verifying the true age of an individual has its challenges. In a case where the individual was served by the establishment and under the age of twenty-one and fake identification was given, the outcome varies on a case by case basis. These cases take into consideration the identification card itself and how realistic it looks.

Additionally, Missouri establishment owners and their employees may face liability when an individual is overserved. Again, this has its challenges as an individual’s behavior may vary when consuming alcoholic beverages. The statute offers some guidance here. First, the person injured by the establishment patron must produce clear and convincing evidence that the establishment knew or should have known that the patron was already visibly intoxicated. Visible intoxication is further defined as impairment shown by significant uncoordinated physical action or significant physical dysfunction.

Age identification and avoiding overserving are only two of several broad areas for an establishment to address to protect itself from dram shop liability. This is not a complete survey of the law surrounding dram shop liability in Missouri and certainly does not discuss all the nuisances present. Missouri establishments should become well versed in their options in terms of ensuring all individuals that are furnished an alcoholic beverage from their establishment are at least twenty-one years of age. This may mean taking additional steps to detect fake identification cards. Additionally, establishment owners and their employees should undertake training to identify behaviors present of individuals showing signs of visible intoxication to avoid overserving.

Article by GOT attorneys, Katie St. John and Seth Gausnell

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