Anytime you throw a party where alcohol is present and some of your guests consume it in excess, you could face social host liability. You may not be familiar with the term, depending on the state you live in. However, should your state have such a law on the books – it really doesn’t matter if you’re ringing in the New Year or throwing one of your infamous Super Bowl bashes, serving booze to your guests can be risky business.
In legal terms, social host liability is defined as “the criminal and civil responsibility of a person who furnishes liquor to a guest that results in an accident involving serious injuries or death.” Most party throwers don’t give it much thought, since they don’t want to appear to be “party poopers” by not serving alcohol. Yet, the consequences can be significant.
Similar to “Dram Shop Liability” laws in some states, which hold an alcohol retailer or bar owner liable for the actions of a severely intoxicated patron who gets behind the wheel and causes an accident, social hosts could also be liable.
While varying from one state to another, these statutes can place the responsibility square in your lap should one of your attendees get into a car wreck that severely injures or kills another motorist or pedestrian after leaving your party.
In California, a social host is typically immune from liability or prosecution for a drunken guest’s actions on the road, but that is not the case if an intoxicated guest under the age of 21 is involved in an accident. In fact, the laws are quite explicit in regards to minors. The law states a violation occurs if:
- An adult has authorized the party at the residence and is in attendance.
- The adult is aware an underage person or persons possesses or is using an alcoholic beverage or controlled substance.
- The adult fails to take reasonable action to prevent an underage person or persons from possessing or using an alcoholic beverage or controlled substance.
Because the social host liability laws were enacted in an effort to reduce alcohol-related injuries and deaths to minors, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the duty of care is still on the party’s host, such as a parent or adult in charge. That duty includes:
- Not “furnishing” alcohol – which is simply making alcohol available
- Not “serving” alcohol – which is if you “knowingly and affirmatively deliver” alcohol.
That said, a social host who charges a “cover charge” at a party and serves alcohol to underage guests will, according to the California Supreme Court, be guilty of “selling” alcohol to minors, thereby being potentially liable for actions committed by that drunken minor. This means also running the chance of being charged with a crime or sued by third parties or passengers of the intoxicated guest’s vehicle injured in a wreck.
Freeway suggests the following tips to keep your guests safe and reduce your social host liability exposure:
- Consider venues other than your home for the party.
- Encourage guests to pick a designated driver who won’t be drinking.
- Limit your own alcohol intake to better judge your guests’ sobriety.
- Offer non-alcoholic beverages and always serve food at your party.
- Do not push or pressure your guests to drink.
- Set a cut-off time and stop serving liquor as the party winds down.
- If guests have too much to drink or seem too tired to drive, call a cab.
- Encourage your guests to wear their seatbelts on the drive home.
- Never serve alcohol to minors.
Your homeowners insurance usually provides for liquor liability coverage, which isn’t a reason to push the envelope each time you have a party. That coverage is often limited to $100,000 to $300,000, depending on the policy you purchased. Unfortunately, neither of those amounts may be enough, if you face a wrongful death lawsuit.
Know what your homeowners insurance covers along with any exclusions, conditions or limitations. The last thing you want is to be surprised. And, always be a responsible host when you serve alcohol at parties.