Liquor Liability in Massachusetts

Posted by Stacey L. Pietrowicz

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As most people know, Massachusetts law prohibits businesses from serving alcohol to people under the age of 21. However, some people may not be as familiar with the law which prohibits establishments from serving any person who is noticeably intoxicated. As undergraduate and graduate students flood back into Massachusetts' cities and towns this month, many of them will undoubtedly be heading to bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs to socialize before classes get underway. So what liability rests with these businesses in serving, and over-serving, alcohol to the public?

Serving Alcohol to an Intoxicated Person

Massachusetts General Laws prohibit establishments holding a Massachusetts liquor license from serving alcohol to anyone who is intoxicated.  Mass. Gen. L. c. 138, s. 69.

Liquor licensees have a duty to observe customer behavior and to stop serving alcohol to someone who is noticeably intoxicated

Liquor licensees have a duty to observe behaviors and to stop serving alcohol to someone who is noticeably intoxicated – for example, someone with red eyes, loud or slurry speech or rowdy behavior. If a bar continues to serve alcohol to that person, it may face civil liability for death or injury to another person caused by the actions of the over-served customer. Although usually occurring in the context of drunk driving accidents, this holds true in other scenarios as well, such as bar fights. As a general principle, bars and restaurants cannot face civil liability if the intoxicated person hurts or kills himself.    

Serving Alcohol to a Minor

Of course, bars and restaurants are also prohibited from serving alcohol to individuals under the legal drinking age of 21. The Massachusetts legislature and judiciary have affirmed the strong public policy directed at preventing the service of alcohol to minors, and most bars and restaurants strictly enforce this law. However, every year underage college students inevitably search for a bar or restaurant that never checks IDs or looks the other way when given a fake ID.

In addition to sanctions, fines and suspension or loss of its liquor license, an establishment may face civil liability if anyone is injured as a result of the minor being served alcohol – including if the minor injures himself or herself. In some circumstances, a bar or restaurant can face liability even if they only served people old enough to drink legally but knew or should have known that minors were present and could get alcohol from others.

Liquor Liability Insurance and Other Compensation

Before 2010, bars and restaurants were not required to have liquor liability insurance – and many went without. This resulted in sparse recoveries for victims injured or killed by drunk drivers. Most commercial and general liability insurance policies do not cover death or injury to someone caused by a bar or restaurant customer who was over-served.

In 2010 however, Massachusetts enacted G.L. c. 138, s. 12 requiring all establishments holding a state liquor license to have liquor liability insurance with minimum coverage of $250,000 (limit for injury or death to one person) and $500,000 (limit for injury or death to multiple people through one incident). Although a drunk driving victim will still face many obstacles to recovery in these circumstances, such as proving the bar knew or should have known the driver was intoxicated when he or she was served their last drink, the 2010 legislation was a large step forward in creating a mechanism for recovery.

A key element in successfully proving a liquor liability case is eyewitness testimony from customers and bar employees. Because these individuals can be very difficult to identify and locate, early, experienced legal representation is essential.

If you are injured by a drunk driver or otherwise injured by an intoxicated person, you may be entitled to compensation not only from the intoxicated individual but also from the establishment which provided the alcohol. SUGARMAN has extensive experience in cases like this and can help. Please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail