When alcohol is served at a party or gathering, sometimes an injury results. That injury may be to a person who consumed alcohol, such as their stumbling down a flight of stairs, or may be caused by that person, for example through a car accident the person causes as a result of intoxication. What is a social host's liability for serving alcohol to a guest, or allowing alcohol to be served in their home?
A social host is anybody who hosts a social gathering, whether a person or a business. That can mean anything from having a friend over for a drink, holding a dinner party, throwing a small (or large) party, hosting a large wedding reception, or even a company Christmas party or picnic.
Historically, social hosts have not had any direct liability for harm that results from their service of adult social guests. However, even when there is no social host liability statute, there is potenital for civil liability:
- Supplying alcohol to minors: If a minor is served alcohol on the premises, and the social host serves the alcohol or allowed the service to occur, then it is possible that the social host will be liable for injuries to the minor, or caused by a minor, as a result of alcohol consumption and intoxication.
- Negligent supervision: If a parent allows a minor to have a party or gathering at which alcohol is served, even if the parent is not present at the time of the party, the parent is potentially liable for injuries to minors, or caused by minors, as a result of their consumption of alcohol at the gathering.
Also, as intoxicated persons are more likely to be injured on the host's premises, the risk of a premises liability claim are increased through the service of alcohol.
In addition to negligence-based theories of liability, at present slightly more than half of the states have passed statutes that may result in social host liability.
- Service to Any Guest: In eighteen states (Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin) that liability may result from service of alcohol to guests of any age.
- Service to Minors: In nine states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, Utah and Wyoming) that liability extends only to the service of alcohol to guests who are below the legal age for consumption of alcohol.
Typically, those statutes apply when the social host knowingly serves a person whom the host knows to be intoxicated, and where as a result of the intoxication the person causes a motor vehicle accident. Social host statutes make the host potentially liable for injuries to third parties, but not for injuries to the intoxicated adult guest. Some social host statutes make the social host potentially liable for injury to a minor that results from the minor's consumption of alcohol.
In New Jersey, liability may arise under the social host statute even if the guest self-serves the alcohol. In Illinois, the statute that creates social host liability for service of minors also applies to any person who sells, gives, or delivers alcohol or illegal drugs to minors.
When alcohol is served or provided to minors, a social host faces the potential of criminal liability. Every state has laws that prohibit the provision of alcohol to minors. Although some exceptions apply, for example for service during a religious ceremony, absent such an exception a social host can face potential criminal charges for serving alcohol to minors or for knowingly allowing alcohol to be served to minors present at their home. Other possible charges include contributing to the delinquency of a minor or reckless endangerment of a minor.
In some cases, such as where adults have been shown to have provided alcohol for a party involving minors or allowed a party to be held on their premises while knowing that alcohol would be served to minors, the adult has been prosecuted for the service of alcohol to minors. There are tragic cases in which minors were involved in motor vehicle accidents after leaving a party, due to their intoxication, and the parent or person in control of the property where the service of alcohol occurred has been prosecuted for reckless endangerment or manslaughter. Such charges are also possible following an incident of alcohol poisoning, or other serious injury to a minor that results from intoxication.
A person who is sued for injuries that are alleged to have resulted from service of alcohol to a social guest has a number of potential defenses, including:
- Lack of knowledge: The host did not know, and could not reasonably have known, that alcohol was being served;
- Lack of visible intoxication: Although alcohol was consumed by the guest, the guest did not show signs of visible intoxication before leaving the social event;
- Other consumption: Although the guest consumed alcohol at the social event, the guest subsequently consumed alcohol in another location prior to the accident, and the guest's intoxication resulted from that later consumption.
When social host liability is based on statute, the statute may provide additional defenses:
- In some states that have social host liability laws, those laws allow a defense that the person who hosted the event did not know, and could not reasonably have known, that the person who consumed the alcohol was below the age for legal consumption.
- For car accident cases, some states require that the person claiming social host liabilty prove that the social host knew or should have known that the guest would be driving a motor vehicle after leaving the social event.