Arizona Dram Shop Laws and Social Host Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents

You’ve been hurt by a drunk person in Arizona. Do you have a claim for compensation against whoever furnished them with liquor?

By , Attorney University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 12/05/2023

You're attending a holiday party at a local pub. One of the partygoers overindulges to the point of being visibly and obviously drunk. While trying to make their way to the restroom, the drunk person stumbles into you, causing you to fall down a flight of stairs and suffer personal injuries. You bring a claim for compensation against the drunk person who hurt you, only to find that they have no insurance or other assets to pay for your losses.

Might you have a claim against the pub for serving liquor to an obviously intoxicated customer? In Arizona, the answer is yes. The state has a liquor liability law, called a "dram shop" law, that likely covers a situation like this one.

After a brief review of liquor liability laws generally, we'll focus on Arizona's law.

Liquor Liability Laws Generally

For much of the country's history, liquor liability laws—meaning laws that impose legal responsibility for injuries caused by drunk customers on those who sell or serve alcohol to them—were the rare exception, not the rule. Why? According to the prevailing legal thought, alcohol-related accidents were caused by drinking alcohol, not by serving it.

While popular with sellers of liquor, this rule often led to unfair results like the one in our opening example. In response, state lawmakers (and in a few cases, state courts) began crafting new rules allowing those who sell or furnish liquor to be held responsible in narrow circumstances. Today, those rules take two forms:

  • dram shop laws, and
  • social host liability laws.

Dram shop laws. Long ago, bars and taverns sold liquor by a measurement called a "dram." Customers began calling these businesses "dram shops." Today, a dram shop law makes a liquor licensee—a person or business that sells liquor to the public—legally responsible for injuries caused by selling or serving alcohol, usually to a customer who's underage or visibly drunk.

Social host liability laws. "Social host" is simply lawyer-speak for anyone who hosts a party or other social gathering. When the liquor flows freely, party guests often become tipsy or, worse yet, clearly intoxicated. Social host liability laws, while less prevalent than dram shop laws, make the party host responsible for injuries caused by their drunk guests. In many states with social host liability laws, liability is reserved for hosts who serve or allow underage drinkers.

Arizona Dram Shop Law

Arizona's dram shop law can be found at Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-311 (2023). A licensee can be liable for personal injuries or death caused by an intoxicated person if:

  1. the licensee sold liquor to—
    • a person who was "obviously intoxicated," or
    • a person who the licensee knew was younger than 21 years old, or from whom the licensee didn't ask for proof of age
  2. the person drank the liquor, and
  3. drinking the liquor was a cause of the personal injuries or death.

(Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-311.A (2023).)

A person is "obviously intoxicated" when a reasonable observer would recognize that the person's physical abilities are "substantially impaired." (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-311.D (2023).) Most adults are familiar with the telltale signs, including:

  • slurred speech
  • repetitive speech patterns
  • lack of physical coordination
  • stumbling, staggering, weaving, or falling while trying to walk
  • inability to stand up, and
  • anger, aggression, or emotionally inappropriate behavior.

Arizona law bars dram shop suits by:

  • a person of legal drinking age who claims to have been harmed by the sale or furnishing of liquor, and
  • adults who were present with a person while that person was drinking, and who knew that person was impaired.

(Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-312.A (2023).)

Arizona Social Host Liability

Arizona law specifically prohibits liability for social hosts who provide alcohol to guests who are of legal drinking age. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-301 (2023).) But the same isn't true for underage drinkers. A social host who furnishes alcohol to underage drinkers, or who lets them drink on the host's property, is on the hook for injuries or property damage they cause because they were under the influence.

Damages in Arizona Liquor Liability Cases

If you succeed with a dram shop or social host liability claim, you can get compensation (what the law calls "damages") for your injuries and losses. Damages in these types of cases might include things like:

  • medical expenses, including expenses for emergency care, hospitalization, surgery, rehabilitation, or therapy
  • lost wages and benefits
  • pain and suffering
  • emotional distress
  • costs to repair damaged property, and
  • amounts paid for replacement household or child care services.

Lawsuit Filing Deadlines and Other Requirements

Like every state, Arizona has deadlines, called "statutes of limitations," for filing lawsuits in court. A dram shop or social host liability lawsuit for personal injuries or death must be filed in court within two years, usually from the date of injury or death. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 12-542 (2023).) In limited circumstances, this deadline can be extended. If you try to file your case in court after the limitation period expires, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your lawsuit.

Finally, note that if you file a dram shop lawsuit in court, Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 4-302.A (2023) requires that you file a copy of your complaint (the document that starts your lawsuit) with the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control within 10 days.

Next Steps

From a distance, it might appear that a liquor liability case should be easy to win. Typically, that's not so. Dram shop and social host liability claims often involve thorny issues of liability. You must prove, for instance, that your dram shop injuries were caused not just by the drunk person's intoxication, but—at least in part—by the liquor that person was sold or served by the licensee you're suing.

Your best chance of success will come from having an experienced Arizona dram shop lawyer in your corner. This is someone who understands Arizona law, including how the state's courts have interpreted and applied the law in past cases like yours. If you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you.

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