Posted on: April 25, 2024

Can Bartenders Go to Jail for Overserving?

Can Bartenders Go to Jail for Overserving?

If you’re relatively new to the world of bartending, you may be wondering about the legal consequences of overserving. If you’ve heard you can go to jail for overserving a patron, it may sound like an urban legend at first glance.

However, responsible alcohol service is a crucial aspect of the job, and overserving patrons can have serious consequences. In this blog, we'll explore the legal implications of overserving and whether bartenders can face jail time for this potentially hazardous practice.

Legal Responsibilities of Bartenders

More than half of the United States have laws that allow you to be sued for overserving a drunk driver. Some of those involve potential criminal liability, including jail time. The laws that regulate alcohol service are set at the state and/or local level and vary by jurisdiction.

Bartenders (and those who sell alcohol for off-premises consumption) are held legally responsible for compliance with these laws. This can include everything from legal serving hours and license-type restrictions to age limits, ID verification, and overserving.

Liquor license holders and business owners can also receive legal consequences for overserving and non-compliance. Repeated violations of the law can result in fines, loss of a license, and even jail time.

Dram Shop Laws and Liability

Dram shop laws dictate the alcohol service liability held by businesses and individual servers – both criminal and civil. In other words, a dram shop law allows a bartender and/or bar to be held liable for the consequences of serving alcohol to a minor or an intoxicated person.

Thirty U.S. states have some form of dram shop laws. Most of these states allow a third party to sue a business for overserving a patron if that person goes on to cause someone’s injury or death. For example, the family of a person hit by a drunk driver can sue the establishment that overserved the driver, though the exact circumstances allowing for such a lawsuit vary by state.

Some states also impose criminal penalties in such a case, including fines or even jail time. For example, one Euless bartender faced charges for overserving a man who later caused a fatal drunken-driving crash that claimed the life of a detective. The repercussions in this case extended beyond the loss of a dedicated public servant; the bartender was charged with contributing to the tragedy by providing excessive alcohol. This heartbreaking incident exemplifies the potential legal consequences of overserving, which can include criminal charges such as manslaughter, as well as civil liabilities. In addition to facing possible imprisonment, individuals responsible for overserving may experience the revocation of their alcohol service license and a profound impact on their personal and professional lives. This tragic case serves as a stark reminder of the imperative for bartenders to exercise responsible alcohol service to prevent such life-altering outcomes.

Consequences of Overserving Alcohol

Beyond the legal consequences of overserving alcohol, there are broader moral and social responsibilities.

As a bartender, you’re in a unique position to protect the safety of your community by employing responsible alcohol service practices. You have the ability to prevent drunk driving, underage drinking, and all of the harms that come with both.

Strategies for Responsible Alcohol Service

There are many strategies for responsible alcohol service that you can use to control your alcohol service liability.

First, there are some routine practices you can employ to reduce the likelihood that patrons will be overserved. For example, measuring alcohol while mixing drinks can prevent inadvertent overserving, and checking the ID of any patron who looks under 40 removes some of the guesswork on catching underage patrons.

The most fundamental strategies for responsible alcohol service involve recognizing potentially illegal sales before you make a mistake. This means you need to understand how to spot fake IDs, recognize potential third-party sales where alcohol may end up in the hands of minors, and keep an eye out for signs of intoxication so you don’t overserve a patron.

Finally, you need strategies for how to avoid an illegal sale once you’re aware of the danger. Having a strategy – or better yet, an arsenal of several strategies – for refusing service to intoxicated patrons is important.

You also need to know what to do once you’ve refused service. It’s generally a good idea to ask intoxicated patrons to leave the premises once they’re no longer fit to be served. This prevents them from causing trouble, including finding ways to get alcohol through other patrons.

You should also offer cabs to patrons who are intoxicated. This is often a key defense in dram shop lawsuits because it demonstrates responsible alcohol service and counteracts claims of negligence. You’re offering a safe alternative to driving drunk, which reduces the likelihood that you’ll be held liable for the consequences of their decision.

Ensuring Compliance with Alcohol Service Regulations

Complying with legal issues in alcohol service is a team sport – everyone from management to support staff has to be committed to the goal.

But knowing is half the battle, which is why many states require bartenders to complete responsible alcohol service training. These courses teach you how to recognize potential problems, including intoxicated patrons, fake IDs, and potential third-party sales to minors. They also arm you with strategies for avoiding illegal sales with a minimum amount of conflict.

In other words, a good responsible alcohol service training course will teach you how to follow the law and minimize alcohol service liability.

Our Training for Intervention ProcedureS (TIPS) courses have proven effective and are approved in many states. You can choose between in-person classroom experiences and online courses that are available from your phone – whichever works for you. In addition, we offer training in responsible alcohol service practices for a variety of specific roles, from bartender to store clerk to servers in a gambling establishment or near a college campus. That way, you get information and advice tailored to the issues you’re likely to encounter in your work environment.

Check out our state-by-state guide to understand the legal issues in alcohol service for your state and find the right course for you.