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Social host liability is a group of laws or precedents addressing the responsibility or liability of someone who furnishes alcohol to someone else. The “host” is usually a person with a right to occupy property who gives alcoholic beverages to guests, and he doesn’t really need to be in a home but might be at an outdoor party, in a car, a boat, or elsewhere. Depending on the way social host liability laws are constructed within a jurisdiction, liability might only exist if alcohol is given to minors or it might cover adults too. With these laws, injury or accident occurring to or caused by the person who has been drinking may be both criminal and civil fault of the host, too.
Some social host liability laws are specifically aimed at cutting down on minors consuming alcohol. It is not uncommon for parents to determine they would rather have children drink at home than have them party elsewhere. Many feel that providing alcoholic drinks at home to underage guests is perfectly acceptable, but this attitude has led to tragic consequences in the past, including drunk driving that resulted in deaths or alcohol poisoning. When a region makes a strong stand and declares that legally a host is liable for deaths or accidents related to drinking, they’re usually discouraging parents from engaging in this practice.
Less commonly, social host liability extends to serving drinks to adults. The person hosting the party could be held responsible for accidents or injuries occurring to anyone who becomes intoxicated. These laws aren’t always “on the books” and liability might be decided on a case-by-case basis. In regions where such laws exist, people planning any form of party might want to think of methods to avoid liability for the actions of others, including serving limited amounts of alcohol or none at all.
In many cases, courts perceive social host liability as extending beyond the home or location of the host. The teenager who drinks at a person’s home and then jumps in a car and gets in an accident is a prime example of this. A rigid law would hold the host responsible for that accident and there could be at minimum civil court charges. Legal charges like endangering a minor could be brought too, since the host’s behavior could be construed as reckless or purposefully criminal.
In studies that evaluate social host liability practice and laws, there does appear to be evidence that these laws can be effective. They make people think twice, especially about providing alcohol to minors, and a correlation between reduced heavy drinking and stricter laws has been established in places like the US. Variations exist in these laws and in the precise circumstances under which they can be applied. Hosts may not be equally liable in all cases, particularly if there is no intent to serve a minor who takes advantage of access to alcohol at mixed-age gathering, such as a wedding.
I found out the hard way that my city had social host liability laws on their books. I once hosted an office party at my house, and I have to say I was fairly liberal with the alcohol in my role as all-night bartender. There were a few co-workers who would probably have been cut off at a regular bar because of their intoxication levels. I was not a licensed or trained bartender, and I honestly didn't want to be the person who spoiled someone else's fun at a private party. I continued to serve alcohol as long as the person was coherent enough to ask for it.
The next morning, I heard a loud knock on the door
and it was two police officers. They asked me if I had hosted a party the night before, and I told them yes. It turned out that one of the guests left the party completely intoxicated and caused a major wreck two miles from my house. He was currently being held on DUI charges, and he mentioned my name as the person who over-served him. The police had to investigate the claim, and they told me that I was in violation of local host liquor liability laws.
I should have provided alternative transportation or allowed the man to stay at my house until he was sober. In the eyes of the law, I was just as liable for any damages caused by an intoxicated guest as a bartender in a public bar. One of the accident victims actually did file a personal injury lawsuit against me, because the accident probably wouldn't have happened if I had stopped serving the man alcohol sooner than I did. It was an expensive lesson to learn about hosting parties where alcohol is served.
I don't know if my area has social host liability laws or not, but I have read some local stories involving adults being charged for serving alcohol to minors at private house parties. I've often wondered if there was a legal distinction between being the host of a party and serving alcohol and being the owner of the house where minors served themselves alcohol without permission. I have to admit I attended a few parties myself as a teenager where alcohol was passed around between minors. I don't know if the homeowners even knew what was going on in their basement.
Fortunately nobody ever got hurt or seriously intoxicated at those parties, but I can imagine the adult homeowners might have been in serious trouble as de facto hosts of a party like that. I wonder if they can still claim they had no idea alcohol was being served even if they understood the nature of many teen parties.