The Party’s Over When it Comes to Social Host Liability
There is a clear trend among state lawmakers to attach legal liability to those who serve alcohol to clearly intoxicated people – particularly minors – who ultimately cause injury to a third party.
While these laws previously applied only to liquor stores and bartenders, today’s “social host liability” laws extend to individuals who serve alcoholic beverages at home, or at social functions they host. If you are planning a cocktail party anytime soon, you should be aware that the responsibility for ensuring that your guests are not over-served may rest with you.
Some states, including Massachusetts, have begun implementing harsher sentences and fines for parents who violate the criminal statute by allowing underage drinking in their homes. Interestingly, Massachusetts law does not extend civil liability to parents who do not actually supply alcohol to underage guests.
Prior to 1984, Massachusetts had attached liability to liquor licensees and vendors that served alcohol to intoxicated patrons, who later caused injury or death to a third party.
The New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Kelly v. Gwinnell held that a social host was liable for serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated adult guest at his home, and therefore owed a duty to the victim of an automobile accident that was later caused by the said drunken guest.
Massachusetts followed with McGuiggan v. New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. In McGuiggan, the court recognized the existence of social host liability to third persons “where a social host… knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, but nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink.”
Additionally, a social host does not owe a duty to an intoxicated guest who injures himself, even if the said guest is underage. The courts believe that the guest, regardless of age, is in the best position to prevent harm to himself.
This issue was decided in three cases; Sampson v. MacDougall, which established that a social host owes no duty to an underage drinker that injures himself; Panagakos v. Walsh, which held that an underage drinker is responsible for his own actions; and Hamilton v. Ganias, which states a lack of duty because of voluntary consumption.
All of these cases describe drinkers who are over the age of 18 but under 21. The courts ruled that the individuals in question were adults in the eyes of the law and should be held responsible for their own voluntary consumption of alcohol, despite being too young to legally purchase and consume alcohol.
In summary, if you are thinking of holding a cocktail party or even a back yard Bar-B-Q at your home, you should carefully consider your responsibility when serving alcohol to your guests. If underage drinking takes place at your home, the penalties for injuries caused by the underage drinkers you serve may be yours to shoulder.
Contact a MA Social Host Liability Lawyer
To find out more information about social host liability law and evaluate your case, contact us for a free confidential case review and receive a response within hours, or call (617) 886-0500. If you need a lawyer outside of Massachusetts, contact us for a referral.