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Social hosts liable in Mass. only if they serve or control liquor

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that teenagers who host underage drinking parties but do not supply the alcohol cannot be held liable in a civil lawsuit if a partygoer is injured. The court also cleared parents or property owners of any liability if they knew nothing of the party or played no role in providing the alcohol. In its ruling in Juliano v. Simpson, the court noted that liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol. You can view the complete text of the court decision by clicking here. The Boston Globe report on the case is available by clicking here.

The case arose out of these facts: On July 2, 2007, 19 year old Jessica Simpson invited several friends, including 19 year old Christian Dunbar, to a party at her home while her father Peter Simpson was away. Dunbar attended with 16 year old Rachel Juliano, his then girlfriend. On their way to the party, Dunbar obtained a “thirty-pack” of beer and a bottle of rum at a package store. They arrived at the Simpson residence between 6 P.M. and 8 P.M., and Dunbar brought the alcohol that he had procured into the house. Over the course of the evening, Dunbar consumed one or two mixed drinks and six or seven of the cans of beer that he had brought to the party. Jessica drank beer as well, from a supply that she had obtained earlier. Although there were some alcoholic beverages belonging to Peter in the house, Jessica neither consumed those beverages nor offered them to her guests. Jessica stayed in the company of her guests throughout the evening.

Sometime before 11 P.M., Dunbar and Juliano began to argue outside the house. They were loud enough to draw the attention of several guests, as well as Jessica, who went out to investigate. Juliano pushed Dunbar, and a friend of his intervened, removing Dunbar to another part of the property while Jessica spoke alone with Juliano. Soon afterward, Juliano and Dunbar prepared to leave the party. Concerned that Dunbar was still upset from the argument and that Juliano had consumed too much alcohol to drive, Jessica proposed that she drive the two home. Juliano agreed not to drive herself, but Dunbar insisted that he take Juliano home. At approximately 11 P.M., Dunbar and Juliano left the Simpson residence with Dunbar driving. Shortly thereafter, the automobile struck a utility pole, causing injuries to both Dunbar and Juliano.

The court’s refusal to expand liability to the Simpsons in the cases stems from doubt that a social host can effectively prevent a guest from drinking the guest’s own supply of alcohol, in contrast to the host who furnishes liquor to guests. The latter host who furnishes liquor is like a bartender in a licensed establishment who is well situated to “shut off” guests who should not be drinking because of age or intoxication. The court noted that “[s]ociety may fairly expect” a host in the latter situation to take such action.

But in cases where guests provide their own liquor, the court takes a much different approach. The court acknowledged also that there were “a number of practical difficulties” inherent in imposing on social hosts a duty “to police the conduct of guests who drink their own liquor.” Among those difficulties, the court noted the unpleasant–and potentially counterproductive– enforcement methods available to hosts, such as physically ejecting an intoxicated guest from the property, thereby increasing the likelihood of that person driving while intoxicated.

Nationally, nine States impose social host liability for injury to third parties where a host merely provides a location for underage drinking, including Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. On the other hand, courts in at least four States (Alabama, Maryland, Vermont, and Wisconsin) have declined to impose liability premised on the control of property.

Drinking and driving is a persistent and widespread societal problem. Imposing tort liability is one way to curb this behavior. Indeed, and as Juliano pointed out in her legal brief submitted to the court, the prospect of civil litigation clan be a formidable incentive with real-life results. Studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated that increases in civil dram shop liability corresponded with statistically significant drops in alcohol involved traffic crashes (See DOT HS 807 629 (1990) for the full text of the study).

But as is shown from this case, courts are reluctant to step in and impose civil liability when the legislative body is reluctant to do so. As the court noted in the Juliano v Simpson, the Legislature’s decision to deter and punish those who facilitate such conduct by the imposition of criminal penalties, but not impose civil liability, supported its decision to not expand tort liability. As the court noted, a number of bills have been filed over recent years seeking to add a civil liability provision to criminal statutes such G.L. c. 138, ยง 34 which was at issue in this case. These bills have been rejected to date. Since the 2003, the Legislature has rejected four attempts to add a civil liability provision (2003 Senate Doc. No. 1100; 2005 Senate Doc. No. 1020; 2007 Senate Doc. No. 968; 2009 Senate Doc. No. 1775). Each bill sought to insert the following language into the statute: “Any person who violates this section shall be liable in tort for injuries or death caused to any person as a result of the operation by a person under the age of twenty-one who is under the influence of alcohol.”

For further information, you can find the case docket along with links to the briefs by clicking here. You can view oral arguments in the case by clicking here.