With the good weather right around the corner, many people are beginning to think about spring and summer home holiday parties. And, of course, what usually comes with home holiday parties is the serving of alcohol. If you are going to serve alcohol at an upcoming party you should be aware that combining home holiday parties with alcohol may often not be a good mix. Often, I get approached by neighbors and friends about the viability and risks of having home parties. They proceed to ask me over and over if is it okay to serve booze at my Memorial Day party? My answer is almost always no whether the parents are hosts or the children are hosts. In light of the rise of underage drinking across the country serving alcohol to minors at your home is the functional equivalent of taking a lit match to a stick of dynamite.
In Massachusetts, a doctrine of law has been created called social host liability. Liability was expanded to include social hosts in Massachusetts over the past many years as a result of the Supreme Judicial Court's decision in McGuiggan v. New England Telephone and Telegraph. Prior to this decision, liability could only attach to the person actually causing the accident. Our highest court in McGuiggan expanded the field of liability holding that the host who served the alcohol in the first instance should bear some responsibility as well as the person who caused the accident.
The reason behind the rule was simply to recognize that where the host is responsible for monitoring a guest's alcoholic intake it should be aware of when that guest is simply too drunk to drive. The change in law reflects how the law of negligence responds to surrounding societal changes. The current trend towards imposing a legal duty on social hosts has resulted from increased concerns over two widespread societal problems-driving while intoxicated and underage drinking.
Simply put, social host liability puts the responsibility of using reasonable care on homeowners who have a home party and serve alcohol at that party. A social host is someone, unlike a bar or tavern, who provides alcohol at no cost to their guests and who do not have an employer/employee relationship with the guest. A social host can be a parent who supplies alcohol to anyone under 21. Massachusetts law states that if a guest at a party has too much to drink, and after leaving the party, causes an accident resulting in damages to another individual, the host of the party can be found partially liable. The key to establishing liability under the Massachusetts social host liability law is that hosts provided alcohol or that the hosts were aware of underage drinking.
There are many variations to this rule, of course. For example, is leaving a fully stocked liquor cabinet unlocked considered providing the alcohol? What if the party is only for adults and a teenager sneaks in with his own alcohol and gets drunk and later gets into an accident? Also, you should beware that underage drinking on your property can result in the imposition of a criminal penalty of up to $2,000.00, imprisonment for up to a year, or both. If you are found criminally liable, your homeowner's policy may not likely cover criminal acts.
How can you avoid the pitfalls associated with social host liability? Here are a few tips for making your home summer party safer:
1. To the extent practicable, don't serve booze at home and don't let anyone bring booze to the party. This is the only real way to avoid liability altogether.
2. Make sure that the person serving the booze to your guests is trained in detecting who is inebriated.
3. Limit the number of alcoholic beverages served to each guest at the party. No exceptions whatsoever. The problem here is that two mixed drinks can affect two different people completely differently.
4. Do not let your kids rule the roost by letting you chaperone an event and then have the friends come with booze.
5. Consider moving the party to another destination (i.e. a hotel) where they have trained bartenders and sufficient insurance to cover such potential losses. This can be tricky because you do not want to retain any control when having the party at another destination. For example, if you were to rent a room at a hotel and serve unlimited booze to guests the fact that the event is at a hotel doesn't take you off the liability hook. You are still controlling the event. The keyword here is control.
6. Make sure you have a sufficient umbrella liability insurance policy. Umbrella liability insurance acts like it says-as an umbrella to cover your auto and homeowner's policies with an added layer of protection. Usually, an umbrella policy provides higher limits ($1,000,000.00 to $5,000,000.00) over and above the other policies that you may currently maintain. The bottom line is that without these additional protections your personal assets could be in jeopardy in the event of an injury to a third party. Umbrella policies place additional limitations on homeowners so not everyone will qualify for this added protection even if they can afford it.
7. Consult with your insurance agent to discuss coverage under your standard homeowner's policy and the addition of an umbrella liability policy. Make sure that the umbrella policy that you obtain covers social host events.
The combination of a home party with the serving of alcohol may only work to "stir" up problems for you. As a homeowner, you must give careful consideration to whether having a home booze party is really what you want to do. If you do think it is something worth pursuing, please give us a call at the Katz Law Group at 508-480-8202 to find out what you need to do to protect yourself.