Summer is a carefree time to take in a ballgame, relax at the beach, or party with friends. But what happens if a guest at your bbq over-indulges? What if your teen-ager hosts a keg party while you and your spouse enjoy a Maine getaway weekend in blissful ignorance?
Social host liability arises when a homeowner or his/her family member serves alcohol to a guest or supplies spirits consumed by a guest. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was in the vanguard 27 years ago in McGuiggan v. N.E. Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986), when it recognized social hosts may be liable if a drunk guest later injures another in a motor vehicle accident. In McGuiggan, the SJC said a host could be on the hook for subsequent harm caused by a guest if the host knew or should have known the guest was intoxicated, but still “gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic beverage.”
Critical to the host’s potential liability is his/her ability to “control the liquor supply” and the host owning the alcohol that the offending guest ingested. The Commonwealth withholds blame where injuries arise from ‘BYOB’ parties. Last year, in Juliano v. Simpson, 461 Mass. 527 (2012), a 19-year-old girl hosted a ‘BYOB’ party unbeknownst to her parent, who wasn’t home. The SJC did not find the minor host or her parent responsible for injuries suffered when an intoxicated guest at the party later was involved in an auto accident.
Likewise, where the inebriated guest, rather than a third party, becomes the accident victim, as in Manning v. Nobile, 411 Mass. 382 (1991), the host was off the hook for serving the intoxicated guest because, the court said, “As between the social host and the guest…the guest is in a better position to prevent harm to himself or herself.”
Beyond suggesting hosts observe a tipsy guest’s conduct and speech, courts have not offered guidance by defining what constitutes “obviously intoxicated” so that a host reasonably could envision the guest might pose a hazard to others.
Though the trend in recent cases is not to blame social hosts for harm caused by their drunken guests, it’s worth noting that under M.G.L. c. 138, §34, a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail awaits one who knowingly provides alcohol to a minor on premises owned or controlled by the person charged. The legislature has rejected adding a civil provision to the criminal statute on several occasions.
If someone suffers harm at the hands of a guest you entertained, or if you are injured by a drunk driver, our office is ready to help.