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Is a Business Responsible for Serving a Drunk Driver Who Causes a Car Accident?

By: Scottsdale Injury Lawyers LLC December 21, 2023 no comments

Is a Business Responsible for Serving a Drunk Driver Who Causes a Car Accident?

Drunk drivers are dangerous. Car accidents involving drunk drivers often result in serious injuries. This is because drunk drivers do not have the ability to make careful decisions or react to dangerous situations.

Often times, drunk drivers will drive their vehicles at speeds that are unsafe for the conditions. At the same time, drunk drivers are more likely to violate traffic laws and rules of the road. This includes disobeying traffic signals and violating right of way laws.

How Alcohol Impairs a Drunk Driver

Alcohol prevents the brain from functioning normally. Alcohol also affects coordination. The more alcohol someone drinks, the greater these effects are.

In sum, alcohol prevents the central nervous system from operating properly. A person who is very drunk will react slower and have difficulty with balance and muscle movements.  He or she will also have impaired mental processing.

Drunk drivers are usually less alert and are unable to react to emergency situations when driving. Drunk drivers may have impaired vision, loss of coordination and memory loss. Driving a vehicle while experiencing these symptoms can have devastating consequences. Not only can drunk drivers harm others on the road, they can also injure themselves and the passengers in their own vehicles.

Drunk Driver Car Accident Statistics

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2021 there were

13,384 people killed in car accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers. This is the last year for which NHTSA currently offered these statistics. Further, NHTSA defined alcohol-impaired drivers as those who had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher.

This means that there could be additional fatal car accidents where alcohol played a role. However, these car accidents would not be included in these figures as long as the driver’s blood alcohol content was lower than 0.08. In other words, having alcohol in someone’s system could have contributed to a fatal car crash but was not accounted for in NHTSA’s numbers.

According to NHTSA, the 13,384 deaths in alcohol-impaired driver crashes represented 31% of the total motor vehicle fatalities in the country. In addition, it was a significant increase from the prior year. Finally, drunk driving fatal crashes have been trending upward since 2011 after trending downward for the previous thirty years.

Drunk Drivers are Less Inhibited and Slower to Process Information

Drunk drivers take more risks and are less inhibited. When someone is drunk, they often partake in riskier behavior and make poor decisions. They also have reduced information processing capabilities.

This means that a drunk driver may be more prone to violate traffic laws. This also means that a drunk driver may not have the ability to recognize or anticipate dangerous situations on the road. In other words, even if they are following the other traffic laws, they may not be able to react in time if someone else violates a traffic law.

For example, if someone runs a stop sign, the drunk driver may not be able to brake as quickly as normal to avoid the crash. Had the drunk driver been sober, they may have been able to process the information quicker and avoided the crash entirely. It is not the drunk driver’s mistake that initiated the crash sequence, but it is the drunk driver’s inability to react to the mistake of another driver that ultimately leads to the car accident.

What Are Dram Shop Laws?

According to a leading legal dictionary, a dram shop “is a place where alcoholic beverages are sold; a bar or saloon.” Dram shop laws are laws that were enacted to hold sellers of alcohol and businesses responsible for overserving alcohol to individuals who later caused an injury to others or themselves. Dram shop laws apply to more than bars and restaurants. They may apply to any business or establishment that serves alcohol.

Dram shop laws are laws that were enacted to hold sellers of alcohol and businesses responsible for overserving alcohol to individuals who later caused an injury to others or themselves.

Dram shop laws are state specific. These laws arise under state law not federal law. As such, not all states allow for liability to attach to businesses that serve alcohol. For example, California does not generally have dram shop liability. Arizona, on the other hand, does recognize dram shop liability.

Dram Shop Liability is Controversial

Whether or not dram shop liability laws are a good thing or bad thing is very controversial. Some people feel that the decision to drink alcohol is what leads to the drunk driving accidents, not the serving of the alcohol. As such, these people feel that holding businesses responsible is overreaching and shifts the blame to someone other than who should really be responsible. People who believe this also tend to think that it is bad for businesses and negatively impacts commerce.

On the other hand, some people believe that holding the businesses responsible, who profit from the alcohol sales, is the right way to handle it. These people believe that a business has a responsibility to its customers and society at large. These individuals also believe that the business is in a better position to evaluate whether someone should be served than the intoxicated individual who may be experiencing impaired judgment.

Another controversial aspect of dram shop liability is who can recover from the businesses that serve alcohol. Some states allow for the person who was overserved to recover for his or her own injuries. This is even if he causes them himself. Other states do not allow for the person who was overserved to recover for his or her own injuries.

Arizona Has a Dram Shop Law

Arizona has a dram shop liability law. The law was enacted by the legislature in 1986. It is set forth in Arizona Revised Statutes Section 4-311. This law sets forth:

A licensee is liable for property damage and personal injuries or is liable to a person who may bring an action for wrongful death pursuant to section 12-612, or both, if a court or jury finds all of the following:

  1. The licensee sold spirituous liquor either to a purchaser who was obviously intoxicated, or to a purchaser under the legal drinking age without requesting identification containing proof of age or with knowledge that the person was under the legal drinking age.
  2. The purchaser consumed the spirituous liquor sold by the licensee.
  3. The consumption of spirituous liquor was a proximate cause of the injury, death or property damage.
Arizona’s dram shop liability law allows recovery of damages from a business who sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated or underage person.

Arizona Allows Someone to Pursue Damages from a Business that Serves a Drunk Driver

In Arizona, there are two situations where someone who is injured by a drunk driver may recover from the business who served the driver. The first situation is where the business sold and served alcohol to someone that was “obviously intoxicated.”  The second situation is where the business served or sold alcohol to someone who was not of legal drinking age without checking their identification or knowing that the person was underage.

The first situation is where the business sold and served alcohol to someone that was “obviously intoxicated.”

What Does “Obviously Intoxicated” Mean?

Obviously intoxicated means drunk to such an extent that a person’s normal physical functioning is visibly altered. Specifically, A.R.S Section 4-311 D. defines it as “inebriated to such an extent that a person’s physical faculties are substantially impaired and the impairment is shown by significantly uncoordinated physical action or significant physical dysfunction that would have been obvious to a reasonable person.”

The following conditions would suggest that someone is obviously intoxicated:

  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to walk straight
  • Falling down
  • Passing out
  • Balance issues
  • Dropping items and belongings

What Factors May Be Considered in Holding a Business Responsible?

Some factors that may be analyzed when arguing that a business knew that someone was obviously intoxicated include:

  • The number of drinks that the business served the drunk individual
  • The amount of time during which the drinks were served
  • The amount of training the business gave to its employees in recognizing alcohol impairment
  • The rules the establishment had for cutting off intoxicated customers
  • Whether the business or its employees had reason to know the drunk person was going to drive
  • Whether the business had a relationship with the drunk driver such that it would know that he or she was obviously intoxicated

The Service of the Alcohol Must Have Reasonably Caused the Injury

Someone who sues a business for his or her injuries or damages must show that the service of the alcohol caused the injuries. Under the law, this is called “actual causation” or “causation-in-fact.” The test is whether the conduct or the acts of the business contributed to the final result and if that result would not have occurred but for those acts. In other words, whether the serving of the alcohol contributed to the drunk driving crash and if the drunk driving crash would not have occurred but for the service of alcohol.

A Superseding Intervening Cause Can Destroy Causation

Under the law, a superseding intervening cause can destroy the causation needed to hold a business responsible. There is one Arizona case that held that a drunk driver’s act of returning to a tavern to retrieve her car after tavern employees drove her home was such an event. In that case, since the tavern employees drove her home, the decision to travel back to the tavern was a superseding and intervening event. When the driver later caused a car crash, the tavern was not liable for the resulting injuries.

Who Can Recover Damages Under Dram Shop Liability?

Arizona’s dram shop liability law does not allow the person who was served alcohol to recover for his or her own injuries. It also does not allow another adult to recover damages if that adult was with the overserved individual when he was drinking and knew that the drinker was impaired. However, anyone else may seek to recover damages for their injuries from the business that served and sold the alcohol.

Arizona Revised Statute Section 4-312 A sets forth as follows:

A licensee is not liable in damages to any consumer or purchaser of spirituous liquor over the legal drinking age who is injured or whose property is damaged, or to survivors of such a person, if the injury or damage is alleged to have been caused in whole or in part by reason of the sale, furnishing or serving of spirituous liquor to that person. A licensee is not liable in damages to any other adult person who is injured or whose property is damaged, or to the survivors of such a person, who was present with the person who consumed the spirituous liquor at the time the spirituous liquor was consumed and who knew of the impaired condition of the person, if the injury or damage is alleged to have been caused in whole or in part by reason of the sale, furnishing or serving of spirituous liquor.

How Arizona’s Dram Shop Law Limits Who Can Recover in Drunk Driving Accidents

In the drunk driving context, that means that if a business serves alcohol to someone who later drives drunk, crashes his or her car and suffers injuries, than that person may not seek to recover from the business. In a sense, they are prohibiting the drunk driver from being able to recover for his or her own bad decisions and mistakes.

At the same time, an adult who was with the drunk driver when he or she drank and could tell the drunk driver was impaired, will not be able to recover damages either. A typical situation where this may arise is if the other adult was out drinking with his or her friend and then later made a decision to ride in the drunk driver’s vehicle. If the drunk driver crashes and causes injuries to that passenger, he or she may not seek to recover from the business. Again, the law seeks to prevent a person who makes their own poor decision to get into a drunk driver’s vehicle from recovering for any resulting injuries.

Notably, a minor who rode with a drunk driver would be able to recover if they were a passenger and injured in a crash caused by the drunk driver. The legislature created an exception for non-adults. This makes sense as the legislature did not want to penalize those under 18 for making decisions that they are not mature enough to make or appreciate the consequences of.

Can A Person Be Held Responsible for Serving Alcohol at a Party or at Home?

In Arizona, individuals who serve others alcohol at their home or outside a business setting are not responsible for any resulting injuries. This is often referred to as social host immunity. Individuals who are hosting social events are not responsible for overserving alcohol.

This would include, but is not limited to, the following situations:

  • Birthday parties
  • Social dinners
  • Graduation events
  • Holiday parties
  • Quinceaneras
  • Bar mitzvahs and Bat mitzvahs

Arizona’s dram shop liability statute references licensees. This means that the statute applies to those who possess a liquor license and their employees.

Arizona’s Social Host Immunity Statute

Arizona’s social host immunity is set forth in Arizona Revised Statute Section 4-301. This section states as follows:

A person other than a licensee or an employee of a licensee acting during the employee’s working hours or in connection with such employment is not liable in damages to any person who is injured, or to the survivors of any person killed, or for damage to property, which is alleged to have been caused in whole or in part by reason of the furnishing or serving of spirituous liquor to a person of the legal drinking age.

The idea behind social host immunity is that it is necessary to keep the fabric of society together. If individuals were strictly responsible for serving friends and family members alcohol, people would be less likely to engage with each other and socialize. The legislature views that as changing the structure of how people interact in a negative way.

Social host immunity protects individuals in their day-to-day social interactions while still allowing commercial enterprises to be held responsible. This makes sense since it is the commercial enterprise that is profiting from the sale of the alcohol, not an individual who is simply providing it at a social event. Likewise, a commercial seller of alcohol has the ability to insure itself for the overservice of alcohol and train its employees to recognize when someone has been overserved.

The Exception to Social Host Immunity

Social host immunity does not apply or protect someone from serving alcohol to someone who is underage. Specifically, the statute only applies to protect the “serving of spiritous liquor to a person of the legal drinking age.” This means that if someone served alcohol to an underage drinker and that drinker caused injuries to a third person, or even themselves, then the person who served the alcohol could be held responsible.

A famous Arizona Supreme Cout case involved fraternity members who served alcohol to fellow fraternity members who were underage. One of those underage drinkers drove drunk and caused a car accident leaving another driver with brain damage and a quadriplegic. The injured driver sued the fraternity and its members.

The fraternity and its members sought to avoid responsibility by claiming they were immune since they were not licensees selling alcohol. The court denied them immunity. The court held that lawsuits could be brought “against a non-licensee who negligently furnishes alcohol to hose under the legal drinking age when that act is a cause of injury to a third person.”

Can a Person Bring Claims Against Both the Drunk Driver and the Business who Served Him or Her?

An injured individual can bring claims against the drunk driver as well as the business who furnished the alcohol. In fact, pursuing the drunk driver and his or her insurance usually occurs prior to pursuing a dram shop claim. Pursuing the drunk driver is an easier claim as it is nearly impossible for the drunk driver to argue he or she is not responsible.

On the other hand, a business has several arguments it can make to fight liability. Specifically, the business can argue that the person was not obviously intoxicated, that the service of the alcohol did not cause the crash or that a superseding intervening event occurred. It is a much harder claim to advance.

Damages can be pursued from the drunk driver and the business who served the alcohol.

Why Should Someone Bring a Dram Shop Claim?

A person should consider a dram shop claim if they have serious injuries and the amount of funds available from the intoxicated individual is not sufficient to cover those. Of course, if the drunk driver was a billionaire, there would be no point in pursuing a dram shop claim. Under those circumstances, the intoxicated driver would have sufficient funds to cover the injuries.

In reality, most individuals do not have sufficient funds or insurance to compensate those who experience a serious injury.  As such, when that occurs, the businesses who profited from the sale of alcohol may be pursued.

Are Dram Shop Claims Only Available for Drunk Driving Car Accidents?

Dram shop claims are usually brought in car accident cases. However, a dram shop claim may be advanced in any situation where causation for an injury can be proven due to the service of alcohol by a liquor licensee to an obviously intoxicated individual. For example, if someone at a bowling alley was overserved and then later threw a bowling ball at the feet of a player in a nearby lane that caused the other player to fall and break his or her back, a dram shop claim could theoretically be advanced.

Contact An Experienced Car Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one was seriously injured due to someone who was driving drunk or overly intoxicated, contact Scottsdale Injury Lawyers today. Our law firm regularly handles complex and difficult car accident cases. We have experience advancing all potential legal claims to make sure our clients are fully compensated. A consultation is free and we only earn a fee if we obtain a recovery.

About the author: The content on this page was provided by Scottsdale personal injury attorney and civil rights lawyer Tony Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Previously Ranked Top 35 US News & World Report).  Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout Arizona and California. He is a trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is a member of the Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association, Scottsdale Bar Association, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project and Consumer Attorneys of California, among other organizations.

Disclaimer: The information on this web site is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The information on this page is attorney advertising. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues.


[1] https://www.nhtsa.gov/book/countermeasures-that-work/alcohol-impaired-driving#:~:text=Overview,Statistics%20and%20Analysis%2C%202023a).

[2] https://www.azleg.gov/ars/4/00311.htm

[3] https://www.azleg.gov/ars/4/00312.htm

[4] https://www.azleg.gov/ars/4/00301.htm

[5] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16623070805541544841&q=Patterson+v.+Thunder+Pass,+Inc.&hl=en&as_sdt=6,32

[6] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=1557397486464756566&q=177+ariz+244&hl=en&as_sdt=6,32

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