Social Host Liability

“‘Tis the season” and over the next few weeks people will be gathering at office parties and to celebrate the season’s various holidays. Frequently those celebrations may include lifting a cup of holiday cheer…or two.  If  you are hosting a holiday party where alcohol is available you should keep in mind the potential liability you, as the social host, might have for party goers who have one too many celebratory drinks.  In Vermont “social host liability” can be imposed in two ways: 1) through Vermont’s “Dram Shop Act” and 2) through the common law by claims of “negligence” on the part of the host.   “Social host” liability for intoxicated party guests is limited but it’s worth understanding.

The Dram Shop Act is a statute prohibiting the sale or furnishing of intoxicating liquors to minors, to persons apparently under the influence of intoxicating liquor, to a person after legal serving hours or to a person who :it would be reasonable to expect would be under the influence as a result of the amount of liquor already served or to that person.   Typically, the Dram Shop Act is applied to bars and restaurants that are caught either over serving patrons or serving alcohol to those under the age of 21.  But the statute provides a civil cause of action to persons who are injured as a consequence of someone else being intoxicated against the person who “have caused in whole or part such intoxication by selling or furnishing intoxicating liquor.”  The statute specifically excludes social hosts so long as they are not furnishing liquor for compensation or profit.  But (and this is a very important “but” to consider)  the Dram Shop Act does impose liability on a social host who “knowingly furnishes intoxicating liquor to a minor if the host knew, or should have known under the circumstances, that the person receiving the liquor was a minor.” The liability of a social host is not limited to just personal injuries caused by an intoxicated teen.  Under the Dram Shop Act social host liability extends also to property damage and injury to someone’s “means of support.”

“Furnishing” under the Dram Shop Act (and under the common law) requires that the host had actual possession or control or otherwise took some affirmative act- such as purchasing- in providing the liquor to the guest. In an unreported case the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of a case in which the guest brought his own beer to a party, got drunk, and later caused a car accident that resulted in serious injuries to his passenger. Because the host had not supplied the beer to the guest it could not be said that the host had the “control” necessary to hold the host liable for the injuries caused by the guest’s intoxication.

Because the liability of social hosts is significantly limited under the Dram Shop Act, persons injured by others who are intoxicated will frequently bring a claim against the social host under the common law theory of “negligence.” To prove a negligence claim of any sort, there must first be a legally recognized duty  of the defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct so as to protect the plaintiff from an unreasonable risk of harm.  A defendant  who fails to live up to that duty is said to be “negligent.”

In 1986 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that social hosts do not owe a “duty” toward intoxicated adults.  In the case of Langle v. Kurkul the plaintiff was a social guest who became inebriated at a party, left the party and went to someone else’s house where he climbed a swimming pool railing with the intent of diving into the pool.  The railing broke, he fell headfirst into the pool, broke his neck and became a quadriplegic.  The guest then sued the host of the party claiming that the host was negligent in allowing a party guest to become intoxicated. The Superior Court granted the hosts motion to dismiss which asserted that the guest had failed to state a legal cause of action against the host, and the guest appealed.

The Supreme Court reasoned that while drunkenness, in itself, is a social problem, there was no compelling social policy reason that justified imposing responsibility on a social host for injuries the drunk caused to himself. However, the Court -looking to other jurisdictions- found that the common law did indeed recognize a duty of social hosts to third parties, but in limited circumstances.  Where it was (or should have been) foreseeable that an intoxicated guest would drive an automobile when leaving the party the social host could be held liable for injuries the drunk caused to others.  (While this issue was not integral to the case actually being decided, subsequent cases confirmed that in Vermont a social host can be held liable under such circumstances.) The “take away” is that social hosts need to make sure that drunk drivers are not leaving their party. If a drunk driver leaves your party and winds up harming someone else, you can be responsible.  This is true even if the drunk goes to another party before getting into an accident- you will be in the chain of people who are sued.  The question will come down to whether you knew, or should have known in light of the circumstances, that the individual was intoxicated when they drove off.

In the same case the Vermont Supreme Court recognized a common law duty of social hosts to third parties for harm caused by underage drinkers where the host either furnished the alcohol or had reason to know that underage drinking was going on. Allowing underage drinking to take place at your holiday festivities is illegal and can in serious fines and even jail time. It can also result in your being sued for harm caused by an intoxicated teenager even if that teenager wasn’t driving when he/she harmed a third party.  Although there are no such recorded cases in Vermont, there are cases in other jurisdictions where social hosts are found liable for intoxicated teenagers who leave the premises, get into a fight and hurt someone else. (And as noted earlier, a social host can be liable under the Dram Shop Act when the harm caused is damage to property.)

The duty of social hosts  generally doesn’t extend to the homeowner whose house is used for an underage party while the homeowner is away. In cases involving underage drinking out of sight of adults the courts will look to what the owner of the property could have reasonably foreseen. Where the party takes place with the property owner having no knowledge of the party and/or underage drinking, liability will not be imposed. In the case of Knight v. Rower the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the imposition of liability for injuries resulting from underage drinking on the individuals who owned the property where the drinking took place.  The owners of the property (a camp) were not present at the party, had no knowledge that a party was taking place on that particular date, and in no way “furnished” or otherwise controlled the alcohol the teens drank.  At best the property owners were aware that underage drinking had occurred at the property occasionally in the past.  This was not enough to establish that the owners had been negligent on the date in question.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the situation where the parent buys a keg of beer for the party and then leaves for the weekend.  Imposition of liability is much more certain in this case.  Falling in between are those cases where the owner perhaps had allowed underage drinking at the home while the owner was there, or where the owner knew that the property- used for underage drinking in the past- was going to be the sight of another party on a particular date.  Each of these factors suggest that it was reasonably foreseeable to the owner that underage drinking was likely to take place on the property.  If the owner knew the teens were regularly raiding the liquor cabinet, but did nothing to stop it, liability will likely be imposed on the owner even if the owner wasn’t home when the party took place.

The holidays should be a time of relaxing with friends and family. But enabling or otherwise allowing underage drinking is clearly a risky business that should be avoided at all costs (during the holidays and at any other time of year.)  Likewise, drunk driving is an activity that should be avoided and, where possible prevented.  A little common sense- and an understanding of your legal obligations as the party host- will keep the happy in your Happy Holidays!