Dram Shop Liability in Rhode Island

The Rhode Island Liquor Liability Act provides for two separate causes of action: that a dram shop was negligent in its service of alcohol pursuant to § 3-14-6 or that the dram shop acted recklessly in its service of alcohol pursuant to § 3-14-7.  Broadly speaking, one of the purposes of Rhode Island’s dram shop legislation is to foster responsible serving practices.  Embrey v. Ortiz, 538 A.2d 1002, 1005 (R.I. 1988).

In order to prevail in an action brought under the Act, a person must have been “visibly intoxicated.”  Since “[i]ntoxication in many instances is a condition that may not be detected[,]” it must be shown that the server “knew or should have known that the consumer was inebriated” in order to prevail on a claim under the Act.  Petersen v. Royal Ins. Co. of Am., 2006 R.I. Super. LEXIS 58 (R.I. Super. Ct. 2006) quoting Embrey v. Ortiz, 538 A.2d 1002, 1005 (R.I. 1988). This is because “the server cannot be expected to make a determination of sobriety unless the server is familiar with the drinker’s previous level of alcohol consumption or unless the drinker manifests such telltale signs of intoxication as swaying or slurred speech.” Id.  Generally, Rhode Island courts have held that a determination of intoxication and a determination of negligence or recklessness on behalf of the dram shop and/or its agents are determinations for the finder of fact. See Gerstenblatt v. Nordic Lodge, 2002 R.I. Super. LEXIS 158 (R.I. Super. Ct. 2002)

Two other provisions of Rhode Island’s dram shop legislation are important to note.  R.I.G.L § 3-14-8 provides that punitive damages may be awarded in all actions based on reckless conduct, as set forth in § 3-14-7, but may not be awarded for actions based on negligent conduct, as set forth in § 3-14-6.  In addition, § 3-14-12 permits admission of evidence regarding proof of defendant’s responsible serving practices, including, but not limited to, “[d]efendant’s and defendant’s employees’ attendance at a server education training course; and… [d]efendant’s implementation, at the time of service, of responsible management policies, procedures, and actions.”  However, proof or disproof that the defendant was adhering to responsible serving practices is not by itself proof or disproof of negligence or recklessness.

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