Mississippi taverns rarely liable for damage by drinkers

Close to 11,000 people die in the United States every year in accidents involving people impaired by alcohol. Awareness campaigns, DUI checkpoints and horrors on the local news often remind people to drive sober, but the role of bars, restaurants, bartenders, and servers is less often discussed.

Every state works out its own way of thinking about who should be responsible when a person under the influence injures or kills someone, even when that someone is the drinker themselves. Mississippi’s laws generally place the liability with the drinker.

Proximate cause for drunkenness is usually drinking

When an intoxicated person hurts themselves or others, anyone could lucidly argue that the fault lies with whoever gave or sold them the alcohol. Mississippi, like a number of other states, simply set those arguments aside as a matter of law.

State law declares that drinking alcohol “rather than the sale or serving or furnishing” of alcohol is the “proximate cause” of damage, injuries or death a drunk person inflicts on themselves or others.

“Proximate” cause can be a complex idea, but here means a cause legally sufficient for something having happened. The delivery driver who delivers the alcohol to a bar will always arguably be one cause of such damage, but the Mississippi legislature has drawn the line. It declares that usually only the drinker drinking causes drunkenness that causes damage.

This goes for commercial businesses or other hosts, such as people throwing a party at home.

The visibly intoxicated drinker and other exceptions

The laws of Mississippi do carve out some exceptions in which a so-called “dram shop” or “social host” can share some negligence and fault. For example, a person who forces or tricks another person into unwillingly or unknowingly drinking alcohol can be at fault for accidents the impaired person might cause.

Other exceptions are probably of greater concern to hospitality professionals.

When it can be shown that a customer was already “visibly intoxicated” when served, the alcohol-sales permit holder has no immunity to being held liable for damage done by the impaired customer.

Selling to a minor does not lift a business’ immunity, unless they are a visibly drunk minor. Of course, other laws do concern themselves with serving underage drinkers.

For those who serve alcohol in non-commercial situations like parties (known as “social hosts”), the question of “visibly drunk” is not the key to liability. Instead, serving a minor can leave a social host open to liability.