Any New Jerseyan who follows the news sees it all too often. A driver under the influence somehow drives the wrong day on the Turnpike, killing an innocent person or a family of innocent people.

We may shudder a bit imagining ourselves as the sober driver facing the oncoming car, a first responder on the scene or even the intoxicated driver realizing what they have done. But imagine seeing the very same news report as the owner of a tavern or nightclub. You might check your phone, fearing the driver was one of your customers.

New Jersey among dozens of states with dram shop laws

New Jersey’s “dram shop” laws allow people injured or the loved ones of people killed by intoxicated bar customers to file lawsuits against the business that “over-served” the driver.

Something like 11,000 Americans die in alcohol-related crashes each year. Who might be to blame for these deaths? Some states, such as California, specify that that act of drinking causes drunkenness and that damage done by customers is rarely the bar’s responsibility.

But about 35 states specify that the businesses and/or servers those businesses employ might share some of the legal responsibility for damage caused by their customers. New Jersey is one of those states.

When a bar or server might be responsible

Our statute says businesses are liable for injuries or damage from a customer if they serve “a visibly intoxicated person or served a minor.”

The harm in question must be “proximately caused by” serving the customer. This idea of “proximate” cause is exciting to phosphors and legal scholars, but New Jersey basically means that serving the customer was legally important to bringing about the damage.

Also, the harm had to be “a foreseeable consequence of the negligent service of alcoholic beverages.”

If, for example, the intoxicated person stepped to the parking lot and then crashed a drone into a helicopter, the court would need to think carefully about the question of foreseeability. Climbing into the driver’s seat while very drunk has relatively predictable and tragic consequences.