March 2, 2024

As more and more plaintiffs, especially teenagers, are injured in alcohol related accidents after leaving house parties or other social events and fewer and fewer public houses and package stores carry liquor liability insurance, plaintiffs with serious, life altering injuries often look to potential “social hosts” as sources for recovery. The question of who should and who should not be held liable as a social host has not always been a simple one to answer. As a general matter, to which there are significant exceptions, if you supply or control the alcohol, you are exposing yourself to potential liability for any damage caused by the your child or their guest who injures a third party.

The General Rule: If You Control The Alcohol, You’re Responsible For The Outcome

In 1986, in the matter McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., the Supreme Judicial Court indicated that in the future it would recognize a cause of action against the social host who serves alcohol at their home where:

the social host knew or should have known that his guest was drunk and nevertheless gave him permission to take a drink thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing a third person’s injury.”

Following this decision, a social host who made alcohol available to an intoxicated guest would be liable to a third party injured by the intoxicated or impaired guest. In order to be held liable, however, the social host must have provided or otherwise controlled the alcohol consumed by the intoxicated guest. In the circumstance where the social host has not provided or otherwise controlled the alcohol consumed, the social host is generally not liable to the injured third party. The rationale is founded on the logic that it is right to place the risk of injury upon the person or persons in the best position to affect the outcome, in this case the “social host” who controls the alcohol, rather than on the innocent third party subsequently injured.

In 1988, the threshold for imposing liability upon a social host was expanded to include the case of providing alcohol to a minor guest, simply by reason of the guest’s minority status, without regard to whether the minor was visibly intoxicated at the time the alcohol was served. About the same time, cases appeared involving claims of social host liability in situations other than automobile accidents, including assaults and the like. Further, it was held that it was not necessary that the alcohol be served at the home of the social host; indeed, “[n]ot every host entertains guests at home. Many entertain at hotels, clubs or resorts. Hosting at taverns is not uncommon.”

These decisions led to a line of cases which sought to impose liability upon the parents of underage social hosts whose guests had somehow injured third parties and upon employers whose employees injured third parties after drinking at work related parties. In holding that no liability would be imputed to the parents of a social host or employers where neither the parents nor the employer provided the alcohol consumed or made the alcohol available, the Supreme Judicial Court made clear this holding would apply even where the parents or the employer knew or reasonably should have known that alcohol would be served in their home or at the function.

A particularly striking example of this occurred in, Wallace v. Wilson. In that case, the minor social host’s mother was aware there was drinking going on in home, observed it, and did absolutely nothing to stop it. However, because she did not supply the alcohol, the Supreme Judicial Court held she was not liable as a social host. Similarly, in Mosko v. Raytheon Co, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that an employer was not liable as a social host for the tortuous acts of its employee following a work related function when the employer did not provide the alcohol, even though the employer knew alcohol would be served at the function.

There Is Some Ambiguity In The Law

In 1989, Steven Mastakangas drove across a divided line into oncoming traffic and struck Angela Makynen head on. Ms. Makynen sued Ronald Mustakangas, Steven’s uncle, alleging that the purchase of three (3) beers for Steven at a local bar, which Ms. Makynen said should create social host liability in Ronald. While describing the case a “close” one, the Appeals Court concluded that “by being at the bar drinking with his nephew and paying for the drinks and food, Ronald, the jury could find, made the beer available to the Steven at a time he knew or should have known Steven was intoxicated.”

Contrast that result to the Court’s decision in Dube v. Lanphear. On February 9, 2001, Ravindra Bhoge drove across a divided line into oncoming traffic and struck Richard Paul Dube head on. Mr. Dube sued Ron Lamphear, Mr. Bhoge’s drinking companion at a local bar, alleging he was liable because, like Ronald Mustakangas, he had paid for the drinks consumed by Mr. Bhoge. The facts of the case are identical to those in Mustakangas. Certainly, liability there means liability here. However, in Dube, the Appeals Court found that despite purchasing the alcohol, Lamphear was not a social host subject to liability to Dube.

Why would this be the case? The court was not crystal clear in distinguishing the two cases. We may speculate that perhaps the answer has less basis in logic than it does in our basic human experience. While we are likely to allow ourselves to be controlled by family members, we are less likely to heed the warnings of simple social acquaintances. Until a case clarifies the distinction, the safest course is to allow friends and family to buy their own beer.

The Take Away

Some kids are going to drink alcohol no matter what we tell them about the risks. You may feel it’s safer that they and even their friends, do it at your home, where at least some adult oversight is present. Maybe that’s true. However, it is not without serious risk. If you choose this course, remember, much like the axiom “you break it you own it,” she who controls the alcohol is responsible for the outcome.

The information in this article is not legal advice and you should not rely on it as such. The specific facts of each situation can result in vastly different outcomes from one case to another. If you have questions about this area of the law, and how it may apply to your specific circumstance, please consult with a lawyer. I would be happy to discuss specific questions with you and you should feel free to contact me. 

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