Consumer Law Articles
Written By: Arthur F. Licata, Esq.
Arthur F. Licata, P.C.
Social Host Liability
What is meant by social host liability? When used as a legal term it usually means that a homeowner or a member of the homeowners family has either served alcohol to a guest or supplied the alcohol that a guest consumed. The facts most frequently contain a description of how the guest consumed alcohol on the premises; how he became intoxicated and how he injured himself while driving home, or injured a third-party on the highway. The third-party could be driving another car or be a pedestrian. The host of the party could be a minor with or without his/her parent being home; or he could be an adult host making alcohol available to adult guests or to minors. The most troubling scenario for the states’ Supreme Courts has been when the drinking was at a home, but the alcohol was brought to the premises by the guests themselves, be they adults or minors. What is the responsibility of an adult host to an adult guest when the alcohol is furnished by the host? What if the guests are minors and they are given alcoholic drinks by an adult? Does that responsibility change if the guests bring their own beer, wine or liquor? Each state has different laws that govern this vexing topic. Part of the problem is that our fellow citizens are equivocal about the issue of drinking alcoholic beverages. Some people see drinking as a harmless social activity. Others see it as a right of passage as one approaches adulthood. Yet another viewpoint is that alcohol is ”harmless or the least harmful drug” as compared to heroine, cocaine or marijuana. There are those that think alcohol should be heavily regulated and supervised especially when it causes so much death and destruction. MADD constantly lobbies that under age drinking is one of the biggest causes of teenage deaths. The people of Massachusetts are typical in their simultaneous holdings of these conflicting views. The Massachusetts Legislature and the Supreme Judicial Court reflect this ambiguity and equivocation.
At the present time, no homeowner in Massachusetts can be held liable for a guest’s intoxication and injury to himself or others unless the homeowner serves the intoxicated guest or makes the alcohol available to her when she is visibly intoxicated. If the guest brings his own alcoholic drinks to a party held at a private residence there is no homeowner liability for the guest’s alcohol related injury; or the injury he may cause a third-party. For example, an inebriated guest crashing his car into that of another driver. Last week the Massachusetts SJC had another opportunity to clarify the law and the social policy upon which the law is based. It again visited the topic of alcohol consumption in the home by a guest who ultimately becomes intoxicated. The name of the case is Juliano, et al v. Simpson, et al. Here are the facts: a 16-year-old girl was seriously injured when the car in which she was a passenger struck a utility pole. The driver was a 19-year-old who had brought alcohol to a party which they both had attended. The host of the party was another teenager whose parents where not at home. The father of the minor hostess was unaware of the party, and the drinking of alcohol at his home by underage guests. The question presented on appeal was whether the underage host and her absent father were liable for the alcohol related injuries to the two minors in the car. The plaintiffs asserted that, of course, they were liable because they controlled the premises at which the party was held. They should have done something to prevent the drinking or the intoxication or both because they controlled the property that was their home. The Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and refused to find the defendants negligent. The court stated that “… if mere control of premises gave rise to a duty of care for social hosts, the difficulties facing judges and juries charged with ascertaining the limits of liability would be manifold… Moreover, we are reluctant to impose a duty of care in the absence of clear existing social values and customs supporting such a step.” The Court invited the Legislature to amend the law regarding social host liability. It stated that the Legislature could more readily reflect the political and social consensus necessary before any changes are made to this evolving legal issue. In the meantime, private homes have become the new safe havens for teen drinking; and high school graduation parties are just around the corner.