A Washington restaurant owner who serves alcoholic beverages to an apparently drunk customer can be sued for damages if the customer is involved in an accident after he leaves the restaurant, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The 2-to-1 ruling, the latest in a series of similar decisions across the country in recent years, reverses the common-law rule that owners of restaurants or bars cannot be held responsible for the acts of others. Both Maryland and Virginia still apply the old rule, but yesterday's decision listed 22 other states that impose the new standard.

The court's holding was based on a D.C. alcoholic beverage law that dates to 1934, when Congress enacted local liquor regulations after the repeal of Prohibition.

In fact, the court quoted the late Sen. Morris Sheppard (D-Tex.), a Prohibition supporter who argued in 1934 against the sale of liquor in the District because "it multiplies the hazards on our streets and highways, imperiling the lives of motorists, pedestrians and little children."

The District's alcoholic beverage law provides for criminal penalties against bar owners who serve customers who are "visibly under the influence." That law doesn't mention civil liability, but yesterday's decision means violating that law can expose a bar owner to civil damages. In the majority opinion, Judge Theodore R. Newman said previous law "inappropriately isolates from the question of common law liability the significance of the Alcohol Beverage Control Act."

"We have no difficulty concluding that {the law} has a public safety purpose, and that its unexcused violation therefore constitutes negligence per se," Newman said.

Judge Frank Q. Nebeker, in dissent, said the decision eventually could lead to the imposition of liability against private citizens who give parties at which guests become intoxicated.

The ruling means that the suit over a traffic accident can now go to trial, but the victims will be required to prove that the driver was drunk and that the restaurant employes knew he was intoxicated when they served him. The restaurant, Brittany, has gone out of business and its insurance company is defending the lawsuit.

Richard L. Fritts, the attorney for the restaurant's insurance company, said yesterday that he was not surprised by the decision and that it represented the trend toward compensating victims of drunk drivers.

The Alcohol Beverage Control law "really wasn't meant to deal with something like this, but the courts have wanted to move forward and help the victims of drunk driving, and that's apparently what the Court of Appeals thought here," Fritts said.

The case involved a May 1982 accident in which a Washington couple were seriously injured when they were struck by a car on Connecticut Avenue just inside the Capital Beltway. Although the accident occurred in Maryland, the court held that the negligence took place at Brittany, a now-defunct District restaurant where the driver allegedly was served alcoholic beverages.

The couple, Rong Yao Zhou and his wife, Xiu Juan Wu, were driving north on Connecticut in the rain about 11:30 p.m. when another car ran a red light and crossed through an intersection at Manor Road, Wu said in an interview yesterday.

Zhou braked hard to miss the car, she said, and their car spun around and came to rest, partly in the median, facing south.

She said she and her husband got out of their car to survey the damage and were struck by a second car. That car was driven by Peter Joray of Rockville, who Wu's suit alleged had been drinking at Brittany.

"Neither of us remembers anything," she said. "They said my husband would not live, and I was less seriously injured. I was in the hospital one month and a half."

Wu said her husband has required numerous operations, has difficulty walking and has suffered substantial memory loss.

The couple's lawyer, Frederic W. Schwartz Jr., said yesterday that the couple first sued Joray and the driver of the first car in Maryland and received a joint settlement of about $200,000. Then, he said, he sued the restaurant in D.C. Superior Court in May 1984 for $3.5 million.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, because at the time the District did not recognize liability against a bar owner.

Schwartz, who appealed the decision, said he thought the case was worth pursuing because "the time was right to try to change the law."

John Grant, program director of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, said yesterday that such cases "are especially important in the light of prevailing ABC regulations that give guidelines to store owners or bar owners. The caveat is now let the seller beware."

Grant said a presidential commission on drunk driving recommended in 1983 that all states that still adhere to the common law should pass legislation known as Dramshop Acts to impose liability in such situations.

Anne Papa, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said yesterday that although her organization vigorously opposes such legislation, it works to prevent drunk driving.

Such cases, she said, have prompted restaurant and bar owners across the country to reconsider happy-hour promotions and, in many cases, to substitute free or reduced-priced food buffets for discount drinks.