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Can Bartenders Be Held Liable?

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A bartender serving a bright orange cocktail in a martini glass.

Last Updated: July 12, 2024

Yes – bartenders can be held liable for alcohol-related accidents caused by their patrons, including property damage, bodily injuries, and even death. 

Bartending comes with its fair share of risks. While this can be daunting and stressful, especially if you’re just getting into bartending, there is good news.

Educating yourself on potential accidents and knowing what steps you can take to prevent them can go a long way and help you minimize the chances of being held liable.

So, what kinds of claims can bartenders be held responsible for and what can you do to protect yourself from them?

Claim Examples of Bartender Liability

The following are real examples of bartenders held liable for their negligence and/or the actions of the people they served. Incidents like these are preventable with the right training and risk management.

Overserving Leads to a Fatal Crash

In 2021, a drunk driver hit and killed an off-duty police officer in Lake Worth, Texas. The driver ran a red light and crashed into the officer’s vehicle, killing him and critically injuring his wife and two children who were also in the car. 

The driver had been drinking at a bar prior to causing the accident. At the time of the crash, the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was two times the legal limit. 

As a result, the bartender who served him was accused of overserving and arrested. He faced a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Intoxicated Minor Causes a Car Accident After Being Served at a Bar

A California bartender was arrested for serving alcohol to a minor who was charged with vehicular manslaughter after driving under the influence

The 19-year-old woman had been driving with her cousin and a friend in the backseat after drinking illegally at a bar when she crashed her vehicle. She and her friend were injured in the accident, while her cousin was tragically killed. 

Bartender Held Responsible for the Death of a Pedestrian

A bartender in Austin, Texas faced criminal charges after serving alcohol to an intoxicated man who later hit and killed a pedestrian with his car in 2020. The bartender was booked in jail and later released on a $2,500 bond.

Bentley Nettles, the Executive Director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission at the time, had this to say about the incident:

“[Bartenders] need to understand that they are the first line of defense when it comes to stopping a DWI fatality before it happens.”

Bartender Faces a Misdemeanor Charge

In 2017, an intoxicated man went on a shooting rampage at a football-watching party, killing eight people. The bartender who served him alcohol before the incident was later charged with a misdemeanor because of a local law that makes it a crime to sell alcohol to someone who is intoxicated and/or deemed “insane.”

Authorities wanted to hold the bartender responsible, claiming that her texts to another bartender proved she was aware that he had had too much to drink and wasn’t in his right mind. She faced a $500 fine, up to a year in jail, or both.

A bartender stirs a drink.

Bartender Guidelines for Safe Serving

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Implementing safe serving practices into your day-to-day operations is the best way to prevent claims like the ones mentioned above.

Do the following to be a better bartender and keep yourself and your patrons safe:

  • Check IDs carefully: Always verify the age of anyone ordering a drink, look for signs of tampering, and check the expiration date. Use an ID scanner like those made by Minor Decliner for added security.
  • Recognize signs of intoxication: Slurred speech, watery red eyes, lack of eye focus, argumentative behavior, and a lack of coordination (stumbling, swaying, or falling) can all be signs someone has been over served.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Only serve patrons one drink at a time and avoid serving them another before they’ve finished the last drink they ordered. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for drinking games, which can lead to intoxication. 
  • Offer non-alcoholic alternatives: Make water, soda, and other non-alcoholic beverages readily available. Encourage eating while drinking with a snack menu. 
  • Promote safe transportation: Offer free non-alcoholic drinks and snacks to designated drivers and provide information on ride-sharing services, taxis, and other transit options.
  • Document incidents: Keep records of any situations involving intoxicated patrons, fake IDs, or refusals of service.

Why You Need to Get Certified as a Bartender

18 states require bartenders to obtain a certification or license, including:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee 
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Some of the most popular certification programs include:


But there are also state-specific programs such as California’s RBS (Responsible Beverage Service) Certification and BASSET (Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training) in Illinois. 

Check with your state’s liquor board to see which program(s) they require or recognize, as not every certification is valid in every state.

Even if you don’t live in a state that requires a bartender certification, it’s still beneficial to get one. These courses cover topics like how to check IDs, identify signs of intoxication, and avoid overserving. Also, they’re usually very affordable, hovering around $8–$12 for an online class.

Why You Need Bartender Liability Insurance

Knowing how to prevent alcohol-related accidents will lower your chances of getting hit with a claim. But if an accident does happen, you’ll be glad to have insurance.

Bartender liability insurance is there to shield you from claims like the ones we covered in this blog, so if something goes awry, you won’t be left to pay legal expenses and settlement fees out of pocket.

That’s where liquor liability insurance for bartenders comes in to financially protect you if you’re held responsible for injuries or damages caused by one of your intoxicated patrons.

FLIP offers multiple bartender liability insurance plans and allows you to bundle general liability and liquor liability in one convenient place. Choose between annual and event options to best suit your needs and protect yourself from alcohol-related claims.

A bartender pours a cocktail through a strainer and into a glass.

FAQs About Bartending Rules

Can a Bartender Go to Jail for Overserving?

Yes, bartenders can go to jail for overserving in certain states. In many states, such as California, you can be charged with a misdemeanor if you serve alcohol to an intoxicated person. In other states, you could even face felony charges.

How Many Drinks Can a Bartender Serve to One Person?

There isn’t a universal bartender cut-off law regarding the amount of drinks you can serve an individual. However, your state may have rules dictating how many drinks you can serve someone over a set period of time, such as an hour. 

Are Bartenders Responsible for Drunk Drivers?

Yes, bartenders can be held responsible for patrons who cause drunk driving incidents according to dram shop laws. These laws vary by state but determine how and when bartenders and businesses can be held liable for overserving patrons who then cause harm, including drunk driving accidents.

Is It Illegal to Serve Alcohol to an Intoxicated Person?

Many states have overserving laws that prohibit serving alcohol to an intoxicated person, but not all of them. Even between the states that do, there are different consequences for bartenders guilty of this crime. 

Can Bartenders Refuse to Serve Someone?

Yes! In fact, it may be your legal responsibility to refuse to serve someone, such as a minor trying to order a drink from you. You may also be legally required to refuse service to someone who is visibly intoxicated or engaging in disruptive behavior that poses a threat to others.

Alex Hastings portrait

By Alex Hastings

Alex is a Marketing Copywriter at Food Liability Insurance Program (FLIP). In her free time, she enjoys reading, birding, traveling, and finding any excuse to get brunch.

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