Opinion: Overconsumption

Generosity or Negligence: Understanding Social Host Liability

Few may realize it, but if you serve alcohol to guests at your home there is a responsibility that goes with your generosity. The legal term used for this situation is “social host liability” and, whether you are the plaintiff seeking civil damages or the defendant in such a lawsuit, liability for what a guest does after leaving a party is a question of fact based on evidence. While there are many laws about alcohol in Massachusetts, this is one that can affect you whether you are drinking or not.

The basic idea is that if you are serving or otherwise controlling access to alcohol, you also have a duty to monitor how much your guests have to drink. In the Commonwealth, the central question of fact is whether you knew or should have known your guest was drunk, gave them or permitted them to have more alcohol after that and their intoxication resulted in damages.

An example of the tragic consequences of over serving alcohol are drinking and driving accidents. Think of it this way: if you are responsible for a person becoming intoxicated, and if that person tries to drive home and that event of drinking and driving causes a car accident, you may also be responsible for any injury resulting from that accident.

In considering the line between generosity and negligence, the court will look at what evidence exists that you provided another drink when a person was already showing visible signs of intoxication. When attempting to prove this part of the case, a plaintiff will likely rely on witnesses and what reasonable people believe is evidence of being drunk. Sometimes it’s a close call. Sometimes it isn’t. For example, was the guest puking between keg stands? If so, you probably should have cut him off.

A particularly sensitive topic is what happens when there is an underage party with alcohol. Something to consider is that providing alcohol to minors is a crime, so you should not do that under any circumstances. Of course, anyone who remembers being under 21 knows that sometimes house parties happen and the homeowners do not necessarily know about it. Just because you own the house where a party happens does not mean you are responsible for what intoxicated guests at your home do. The social host liability theory looks at what role you actually played in controlling the flow of alcohol in determining your responsibility for the damages.

Controlling access to alcohol is a question of fact at trial and depends on what happened on the day or evening in question. For example, does your home have a wet bar and did you spend the evening mixing cocktails for your guests? If so, you may have been directly responsible for whether your guests had too much to drink. Did your kids and their friends pick the locks on your liquor cabinet while you were away for the weekend? If so, you may not have had any ability to control whether the guests of your college age children at your home drank to excess. Did you chisel out an ice luge and pour all the shots? Again, this article cannot possibly go through all the scenarios but the ultimate question of responsibility turns on control and notice of intoxicated guests.

Parties where guests are told to bring their own alcohol is an example of where a social host’s control is limited. In a BYOB situation, the social host does not control the source of intoxication, does not necessarily have the ability to cease the access to alcohol and, therefore, does not have control over whether a guest drinks or doesn’t. Without that control, the courts are less inclined to hold a host responsible for third parties later injured by a guest who operated their motor vehicle negligently.

While the law might not impose unreasonable obligations on hosts, there is another set of unwritten rules that say friends should keep an eye on each other. Remember to enjoy yourselves knowing that there is no need to ruin a good party with a bad decision.

Leonardo Angiulo is a Legal Expert for GoLocalWorcester.com, and Attorney at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski.

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