Ryan Dunn's Death Raises Questions About Dram Shop Laws

The recent death of Ryan Dunn has drawn attention to the issue of drunk driving in recent weeks. Ryan Dunn, star of MTV's Jackass, and friend Zachary Hartwell were killed June 20, 2011 when Ryan Dunn's Porsche 911 hit a guardrail, flipped into a ravine, and caught fire. Dunn is estimated to have been traveling between 132 and 140 miles per hour. Dunn and his friend were on their way home from a bar in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Dunn had a blood alcohol level of .196, more than twice the legal limit.

Under Pennsylvania law, a licensed seller of alcohol is not civilly liable to another individual unless the person was visibly intoxicated at the time of sale. The bar that Dunn was drinking at, however, is unlikely to be liableunder this law, despite reports from other patrons that he was in fact very visibly intoxicated at the time. Surveillance tape from the bar shows that Dunn may not have been visibly intoxicated when he purchased the drinks, and allegedly received additional drinks from fans and friends.

Similar laws exist in California, giving licensed sellers of alcohol civil immunity from liability for selling to minors and adults who injure themselves or others. The only exception to this law is if the individual is obviously intoxicated. Immunity in California even extends to social hosts. Until recently, social hosts were also immune from liability for serving alcohol to minors. This changed January 1, 2011 when the Teen Alcohol Safety Act went into effect. This act holds social hosts over the age of 21 liable for knowingly serving alcohol to minors. According to MADD, laws imposing liability for the provision of alcohol, known as dram shop liability laws, have been effective in decreasing the number of crashes involving drunk driving between 3-6%, implying that they encourage licensed sellers and social hosts to make more careful decisions in serving alcohol.

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