Personal Injury Lawyers
Attorney Van O'Steen

Society May Demand Social Host Liability for Inebriated Guests

Van O'Steen

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December sets the record each year for the highest consumption of alcoholic beverages.  Holiday entertaining is largely responsible for this. Although not inevitable, alcohol often means intoxication.

Most would agree that those who host social events where alcohol is served have a moral responsibility to stop serving it to intoxicated guests.  In Arizona, as in most other states, the obligation goes no further. There is no legal duty to cut off an intoxicated guest—at least not yet.

Bar and restaurant owners, however, can be sued for carelessly continuing to serve an obviously drunken patron who later is injured or injures someone else in a traffic collision.

Given the danger drunken drivers present to all of us, the idea of extending this liability to social hosts is always a current, if not controversial, topic.  Presently, bar owners and homeowners are treated differently under the law.

A bar-owner's economic incentive to continue serving drinks plays an important role in the distinction. In addition, bartenders have greater experience and skill than the rest of us in recognizing when someone has had too much to drink.

The liability of tavern owners and the possible extension of that liability to social hosts is largely a function of public policy, and as the public demands more, policy begins to shift.

We continue to demand a response to the destruction and suffering caused by drunken drivers, and that demand extends to the people who help them get drunk. One could argue reasonably that our courts should not make a distinction between the bar owner selling beer and the party host giving it away. The effect is often the same—someone dead or injured in an automobile collision.

As society continues to demand more, either the courts or the Legislature may adopt new laws, reflecting a stronger policy that would result in social-host liability for injuries caused by their intoxicated guests.

If that occurs, the annual Christmas party may become a much more sober event, and maybe that would be just fine. True Christmas spirit does not come in a bottle anyway.