Several times a year, it seems, we hear a story about a teenage drinking party leading to unfortunate consequences. Recently, a parent in Hingham, MA, was criminally charged for allowing such a party, apparently while the parent was at home. Thankfully, no-one was hurt.
But suppose it wasn’t just a case of the police breaking up a teen party? Suppose someone was hurt or killed when a drunk teenager drove home? Does social host law make the parent liable? One might think it obvious that a person who allows a teen drinking party in their home will be liable, but so far in Massachusetts the answer appears to be “maybe.”
In Massachusetts, a recent case re-affirmed the long-standing rule that a social host cannot be held liable for drinking related accidents caused by intoxicated guests unless the host actually serves or controls the liquor that makes the guest drunk. To read the Court’s opinion in Juliano v. Simpson in full, see http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1595146.html
Beginning in 1986, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowed liability claims against social hosts who served alcohol to guests the hosts knew or should have known were intoxicated, and who subsequently caused injuries to innocent third parties. The Court, however, has consistently declined to broaden the scope of liability for social hosts. Thus, the Court has refused in the past to hold a mother liable even in circumstances where she knew her underage daughter’s guests were drinking alcohol that they brought to the family’s home. Because the mother did not supply or serve alcohol to any minors, she owed no duty to a person injured by an intoxicated guest and it made no difference to the Court that the mother was at home in the house when underage guests were drinking.
The Court’s reasoning for limiting a social host’s liability focuses on control of the alcohol consumed by the guest and not control of the property where it is consumed. Even though a host provides a setting and atmosphere for underage drinking, the host must also have the means to effectively control the supply of alcohol a guest consumes in order to be held liable. The Court acknowledged the practical difficulties inherent in obligating a host “to police the conduct of guests who drink their own liquor.”
The Court’s recent decision in Juliano v. Simpson dealt with an underage host and the inability to control [guest] alcohol consumption. There is little doubt that an adult host who actually serves alcohol to minors could be held liable for injuries caused by the minor’s intoxication. And the Court appears to be willing to entertain the idea of holding an adult social host liable who allows underage drinking which causes intoxicated guest to harm others. (This suggests the Court may be willing to reverse its earlier decision involving the mother who knew underage drinking was taking place in her home but nonetheless would not be held liable.)
Importantly, at least one Justice called for the Legislature to address the question of social host liability limitations by enacting statutes that prohibit this conduct and permit claims for injuries caused by it. Legislation, if enacted, that held adult hosts liable for providing, or knowingly allowing, minors to drink in their home would seem to bring Massachusetts law in line with social norms of acceptable behavior.
If you or a family member has been injured in an accident caused by an intoxicated partygoer, SUGARMAN can help. Please fill out a contact form, call us at (617) 542-1000, or email email@example.com and we will respond as soon as possible.