Personal Injury

Social Host Liability: When Your Guests Drink and Then Drive

By John McCurley, Attorney
Laws that hold party hosts responsible for the actions of their drunken guests.

“Social host liability” refers to a party host—who serves alcohol—being held legally responsible for the actions of intoxicated guests. Questions about social host liability often come up in cases involving DUI accidents. The scenario usually involves a person who’s been injured or had property damaged by a drunk driver going after the individual who supplied the alcohol in court. In some circumstances, the party host can also face criminal charges.

This article gives an overview of social host liability laws.

Social Host Liability Laws

States vary quite a bit on how they approach social host liability. But generally, there are states:

  • with laws that specify social hosts aren’t liable
  • with laws that specify the circumstances where a social host is liable, and
  • without any laws specifically addressing social host liability.

No Liability

There are a number of states—California and New York included—that protect social hosts from being on the hook for the actions of drunk adult guests. The law in California, for instance, says the legal cause of damages or injuries caused by an intoxicated adult is the consumption—not the furnishing—of alcohol. This rule puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the drinker rather than the person supplying the booze.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 1714 (2017); Gabrielle v. Craft, 428 N.Y.S.2d 84 (1980).)

Laws Imposing Liability

In other states, someone who throws a party can be held accountable if a tipsy guest gets behind the wheel after leaving the party. For example, New Jersey law allows the victim of a DUI accident to sue and recover damages from a social host when:

  • the host provided alcohol to a “visibly intoxicated” guest
  • circumstances indicated that serving the guest alcohol created an “unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm”
  • the host failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the harm caused, and
  • the guest got into a car accident and negligently caused property damages or injuries to another person.

However, if the guest’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was less than .1%, the judge or jury must assume the guest wasn’t visibly intoxicated. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:15-5.6 (2017).)

States Without Social Host Laws

There are also states, such as North Carolina, that don’t have social host liability laws on the books. But that doesn’t mean that social hosts in these states are in the clear—victims of drunk driving accidents can still sue under negligence laws. To prove negligence in this context, the victim typically must show:

  • the host failed to act as a “reasonable person” by giving the guest alcohol, and
  • providing the alcohol was a “cause” of the victim’s (plaintiff) injuries or property damage.

The judge or jury deciding the case will likely look to factors like whether the guest was visibly drunk and whether the host knew the guest planned on driving. (See Hart v. Ivey, 332 N.C. 299 (1992).)

Supplying Alcohol to Minors

States that block lawsuits against social hosts who provide alcohol to adult guests often have different rules that apply when a host supplies alcohol to minor guests. For example, take New York and California: Both states have laws that explicitly say social hosts aren’t liable for actions taken by their intoxicated adult guests. However, the opposite is true if a host furnishes booze to a person under the age of 21—the host can be held financially liable for the actions of the underage drinker and face misdemeanor criminal charges.

(N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 11-100 (McKinney) (2017); N.Y. Penal Law § 260.20(2) (McKinney) (2017); Cal. Civ. Code § 1714 (2017); Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25658 (2017).)

Read more about the consequences of supplying alcohol to minors.

Dram Shop Laws

Lots of states also have “Dram shop” laws. These laws are meant to hold establishments that provide alcohol responsible—under certain circumstances—for the subsequent actions of their patrons. State laws vary, but generally, Dram shop laws impose liability when:

  • the establishment sold or provided alcohol to a visibly intoxicated patron, and
  • the patron’s intoxication was a cause of the victim’s (plaintiff) injuries or property damage.

Dram shop laws give plaintiffs an additional but not exclusive remedy. In other words, the injured party can sue the establishment and the drunk driver.

(Learn more about Dram shop laws.)

Get in Touch With an Attorney

Social host liability laws are different in every state, and the facts of each case are unique. This article gives only a general overview of this topic. To find out how state law applies to your situation—whether you’re the host or the victim—talk to a qualified local attorney.

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