Understanding the law: A bar’s liability for serving minors alcohol

Recently, in Lafayette, Louisiana, The Advocate reports that “local bars . . . allegedly sold alcohol to [two] underage drinkers, both of whom later died in separate and unrelated incidents.” An obvious tragedy, the matter serves as a stunning reminder that liability for businesses goes beyond what happens on their property. When a bar serves alcohol to a minor, it can be held legally liable for the ensuing injuries and harm to the minor.

If a bar —or any other liquor retailer— serves alcohol to a minor, determining whether the bar is liable for the minor’s ensuing harm is a difficult and tricky process. This article is intended as an introductory guide to help you better understand your legal rights and whether you should seek legal representation.

A bar has a duty to not serve alcohol to minors. If the bar negligently breaches that duty, it will be held liable for the harm caused to the minor when it is both (1) a cause-in-fact and (2) a legal cause of the underage drinker’s resulting harm.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana case of Berg v. Zummo is the legal authority on a bar’s liability for serving alcohol to minors. According to Berg, a bar negligently breaches its duty to not serve minors alcohol when it “fails to exercise the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances.”
Determining what is and isn’t a reasonable effort of a bar’s efforts in preventing minors from purchasing or consuming alcohol on the premises depends on the specific facts of the situation. As a general guide, if a bar doesn’t check the minor’s identification when he or she enters the bar or when he or she purchased the alcohol, the bar likely breached its duty.

The issue of the purchase or consumption leading to the event is called “cause-in-fact.” Cause-in-fact basically means that if the bar had not served alcohol to the minor, the minor would not have been harmed. As recognized in Berg, a cause-in-fact need only be “a substantial factor in bringing about that harm.” Thus, the bar’s service of alcohol does not need to be the only cause-in-fact of the minor’s harm.

The following is an example illustrating cause-in-fact. For the following two situations, assume a bar breached its duty and served alcohol to a minor. If the minor then gets in a car accident solely because he is intoxicated, the bar’s conduct is a cause-in-fact. If the minor gets in a car accident solely because he is a horrible driver and the accident would have happened if he didn’t drink, the bar’s service of alcohol is not a cause-in-fact.

A bar’s service of alcohol to a minor is a legal cause of the minor’s harm when the risk of that harm occurring was within the bar’s scope of duty. Basically, legal cause means that the minor’s harm must be sufficiently connected to the bar’s service of alcohol to the minor.

For example, in Berg, the court stated that “the risk that a minor who is served alcohol might become intoxicated and get into a fight and injure someone with his car is clearly within [the bar’s] scope of duty” to not serve alcohol to a minor and, thus, is a legal cause of the minor’s harm. However, the risk that a minor who is served alcohol might be struck by lightning on the walk home from the bar is probably not within the bar’s scope of duty and is not a legal cause.

If you need help with legal claims arising out of a bar service of alcohol to a minor, call the Berniard Law Firm and an attorney will help you with the legal assistance you deserve.