The Explainer: The Three Critical Pillars of an Alcohol Liability Case in South Carolina

In the aftermath of an alcohol-related incident, when questions of liability arise, the stakes are high for both the claimant and the subject establishment accused of wrongdoing.

South Carolina’s “dram shop” framework allows injured parties to hold permit holders accountable for serving alcohol to intoxicated individuals or minors.

Successfully navigating these complex cases requires meticulous attention to detail and a solid grasp of three key elements, as established in the landmark 2010 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Hartfield v. Getaway Lounge, 388 S.C. 407, 697 S.E.2d 558 (2010).

Hartfield: The Standard for Alcohol Liability in South Carolina

Before delving into the crucial components, understanding Hartfield’s impact is essential. This case solidified the legal ground for proving alcohol liability in South Carolina. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Verdict: A $10 million award to a passenger seriously injured by an intoxicated driver who patronized The Getaway Lounge.
  • Burden of Proof: Plaintiffs must demonstrate the permit holder knowingly sold beer or wine to an intoxicated person, applying relevant criminal statutes (S.C. Code Ann. § 61-4-580).

Hartfield emphasized the importance of establishing:

  • Intoxication at the time of service: Not just visible intoxication, but a BAC exceeding .08 (the current standard).
  • Knowledge or should have known: The permit holder acted negligently by serving someone they knew or should have known was intoxicated.

The Supreme Court disregarded the bar’s argument the plaintiffs were required to demonstrate Helton was “visibly intoxicated” at the time of the bar’s service of alcohol to him. The Court held that § 61-4-580 requires no such showing at trial. The statute only states that a permit holder shall not “knowingly” sell beer or wine to an intoxicated person. Thus, if a permit holder knows a patron has consumed alcohol prior to entering the permit holder’s establishment, that knowledge can be ultimately used to demonstrate the permit holder “knowingly” sold alcohol to an intoxicated patron. The fact the patron didn’t look intoxicated at the time of sale is not a safety net for the permit holder.

The Court held that “knew or should have known” is an articulation of the objective “reasonable person” standard that is the underpinning of every negligence action prosecuted in South Carolina. Thus, if a permit holder possesses information or makes observations that would lead a jury to think the permit holder should have known a patron was intoxicated at the time of service, such evidence is likely admissible and can be used to establish liability.

The Three Pillars of a Strong Case:

First Pillar: Building a Meticulous Timeline:

Imagine piecing together a forensic puzzle. Trace the individual’s every drink, not just at the establishment in question, but throughout the day leading up to the incident. Every detail matters:

  • Time and location: Each drink’s specific location and time of consumption.
  • Type and quantity: Precise details of alcoholic beverages consumed.
  • Witness corroboration: Statements from individuals who can confirm the timeline.
  • Securing evidence: Receipts, credit card records, and even video footage to solidify consumption history.

Second Pillar: Pinpointing the Establishment’s Role

Zoom in on the specific establishment. Here, precision is paramount:

  • Quantities and timestamps: Exact details of drinks consumed at the establishment with precise timestamps.
  • Server involvement: If possible, identify the servers involved in serving the individual.
  • Witness accounts: Crucial to establish knowledge or understanding by servers of prior alcohol consumption or observed signs of intoxication while at the establishment.
  • Remember: Whether prosecuting or defending, the goal is to isolate the establishment’s specific contribution to the individual’s overall alcohol consumption.

Third Pillar: BAC Analysis and Retrograde Extrapolation:

Think of BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) as a snapshot, offering a glimpse into intoxication at a specific moment. Ideally, a blood test closest to the incident provides the most reliable picture. But what about their BAC at the time of service? This is where retrograde extrapolation, a scientific technique employing the Widmark Formula, comes into play.

  • Experts like toxicologists or pharmacologists analyze the BAC result, individual factors, and the meticulously crafted timeline to estimate the BAC at the crucial moment of service.
  • This estimation can be a game-changer by demonstrating the potential for “knowing” service to an already intoxicated individual.

Understanding Retrograde Extrapolation

It’s a complex process requiring expert analysis. It estimates BAC backwards in time based on a known BAC at a later point, helping to establish intoxication at the time of service.

  • The Widmark Formula is a common tool, but remember: It’s an estimate, not a definitive result. Variations in individual metabolism and other factors can affect accuracy. Expert interpretation and consideration of additional evidence are essential.

Why You Need an Expert

Performing retrograde extrapolation accurately requires significant scientific expertise. You cannot prosecute or defend an alcohol liability case in South Carolina without expert testimony.

  • A toxicologist, pharmacologist, or expert in forensic analysis:
    • Analyzes the BAC result thoroughly, considering individual factors and potential influencing medications.
    • Applies retrograde extrapolation methods, acknowledging limitations.
    • Explains the BAC estimate and its implications in court-understandable terms.
    • Supports your case with expert opinion and scientific reasoning.


Navigating alcohol liability cases demands meticulous attention to detail and a deep understanding of the legal framework and scientific principles involved. By focusing on the three key elements – timeline, specific consumption, and BAC analysis with retrograde extrapolation – and seeking the assistance of qualified experts, you can increase your chances of successfully proving or defending your case.

About Christian Stegmaier
Senior Shareholder

Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder and chair of the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group at Collins & Lacy in Columbia. He is also active in the firm’s professional liability and appellate practices. Stegmaier welcomes your questions at (803) 255-0454 or