Sanford v. Lawler – Dram Shop Liability Lawsuit Weighed


The dram shop liability law in Florida, as codified in F.S. 768.125, limits liability against establishments for serving alcohol when those who consume the drinks go on to injure others. That injury most typically includes drunk driving, but it could mean other types of damages that occur as a result of that person’s intoxication. The circumstances in Florida under which a bar or restaurant could be held accountable are only when drinks are sold/furnished to minors or those with a known addiction to alcohol.

Other states have dram shop laws that are considerably broader.

But no matter where a case takes place, there may be legal disputes regarding the technical interpretations of the language in dram shop laws.

One such case recently unfolded before the Iowa Supreme Court, which weighed the dram shop liability case of Sanford v. Lawler, which stemmed not from a DUI but from an alcohol-fueled criminal assault.

According to court records, the case began at a summer beach resort located on a lake in Iowa. Amenities to guests at the resort include outdoor and indoor pools, tennis and basketball courts and a playground.

Guests are also given complimentary boat rides on which soft drinks, alcohol and other beverages are served. These rides are strictly limited to resort guests. The resort has liquor licenses to allow it to serve alcohol on these excursions.

In the summer of 2011, a couple and their three adult children checked into the resort for a week-long stay. The family signed up for a boat cruise and relaxed with an alcoholic drink. So too did another couple, who arrived with their adult sons and several friends.

During the boat ride, many of those involved consumed a number of alcoholic drinks. At one point, the adult son of the first couple and his father exchanged angry words with a friend of the second couple while waiting in line for another drink. About an hour later, there was another confrontation and the adult son of the first couple assaulted the adult son of the second.

The aggressor punched the second son in the head once, causing him to fall and strike a wall, resulting in serious injury.

Plaintiffs, representing the man who’d been assaulted, filed a lawsuit against not just the alleged aggressor, but also the resort for premises liability and also for dram shop liability.

The resort moved for summary judgment on the dram shop liability claims, asserting the statute is only applicable to the sale and service of alcohol – not in cases where beverages were simply furnished (not sold) as an amenity to guests. Resort also argued it could not have sold to the alleged aggressor because he wasn’t a paying guest. His father was the one who had paid for his stay.

Trial court granted summary judgment to defense, finding no sale had taken place and therefore the dram shop law was inapplicable.

Plaintiffs appealed, and the state supreme court reversed.

The law in Iowa clearly says liability can be conferred onto an establishment that “sold and served” alcohol to an intoxicated person or someone who is underage. Neither party in this case disputes the bartender knew or should have known those involved were drunk.

But the term “sold” in this case was interpreted more broadly. While the state law did originally impose liability for “giving or selling” alcohol, it was amended in order to protect purely gratuitous alcohol furnishing. But here, the court ruled the alcohol was “sold” in the sense that a “sale” is not only confined to “direct sales,” and may include third-party beneficiaries, such as the alleged aggressor in this fight.

Thus, the summary judgment ruling was reversed and the case was remanded back to the trial court.

If you have been injured in West Palm Beach, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (561) 347-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Sanford v. Lawler, May 8, 2015, Iowa Supreme Court

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JLG Trucking LLC v. Garza – Accident Lawsuit Verdict Reversed, New Trial Ordered, May 14, 2015, Palm Beach Injury Attorney