SJC rules party hosts not liable for underage BYOB drinking
Massachusetts residents who host "bring-your-own-booze" parties are free of liability if underage guests subsequently drive drunk and cause injuries, deaths or damage, the state's high court ruled last week.
Contending that "social hosts" cannot be expected to police their guests' drinking, the court ruled that only hosts who supply alcohol to their visitors can be held legally responsible for off-premises damage caused by intoxicated guests.
"[A] social host could be held liable for injury to third parties caused by the drunk driving of a guest only in cases where the host had actually served alcohol or made it available," wrote Justice Fernande Duffly in a majority opinion in which she drew from prior court rulings to offer a rationale. "[L]iability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol."
In her opinion – joined by Justices Robert Cordy, Barbara Lenk, and Francis Spina – Duffly rejected an attempt by parents of an injured 16-year-old partygoer, Rachel Juliano, to sue the party's 18-year-old host, Jessica Simpson. Juliano "suffered serious injuries" when a car driven by her boyfriend, Christopher Dunbar, struck a utility pole after the pair left the premises, according to facts relied upon by the court.
At issue, according to the majority opinion, is the fact that Dunbar, not Simpson, had supplied all the alcohol available at Simpson's party – a 30-pack of beer and a bottle of rum – and insisted on driving home with Juliano after consuming a pair of mixed drinks and "six or seven beers."
Although the Julianos' suit contends that Simpson, the party host, should be found negligent for allowing Dunbar to drink on her property, the court concluded that earlier rulings made clear that hosts can't be responsible for their guests' drinking when they don't control the supply of alcohol.
"[W]e expressed 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, we said, 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, and we noted that '[s]ociety may fairly expect' a host in the latter situation to take such action," according to Duffly's ruling.
"We 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 we 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," Duffly continued.
Although the ruling was unanimous, two justices — the court's chief Roderick Ireland and Judge Ralph Gants — offered a separate opinion calling the ruling too broad because it would apply to both underage hosts and those who are over 21 years old.
"I differ with the court in that I would limit our holding to an underage host, and would wait until we are presented with a case where a social host who has reached legal drinking age knowingly allows underage guests to use his or her home to drink alcohol before we decide whether to extend our holding to all social hosts," Gants wrote. "I believe that such restraint is the more prudent course...it is not difficult to imagine egregious circumstances where an adult of legal drinking age encourages underage guests to 'bring your own beer or booze' to get drunk at his or her house, one of whom later kills or cripples someone while driving home."
"Under the court's decision today," he continued, "if similar tragic facts again arose, a social host who has reached the legal drinking age would not be liable in tort if he or she did not provide the alcohol for the party, even if the underage guest had killed a pedestrian, passenger, or another motorist while driving home."
Judge Margot Botsford wrote a separate concurring opinion, contending that the Legislature — which frequently regulates the alcohol industry and makes laws regarding alcohol consumption — should address the issue.
"As the court notes, a number of bills have been filed over recent years seeking to add a civil liability provision to [state law]. These bills have been rejected to date, but they reflect legislative interest in regulating the very issue we consider here," she wrote.
Botsford also rejected the majority's opinion that there are no "clear existing values and customs" in play in its decision. "I believe that there clearly exists today a widespread social consensus that (1) underage drinking, especially when combined with driving, is a social problem of enormous significance; and (2) we as a society are committed to preventing or limiting its occurrence in whatever ways we can," she wrote.
The court's ruling dealt a defeat to the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, which had called on the court to rule against Simpson and declare her liable for the injuries and damage caused by her party guests.
"This case is governed by general negligence principles under which every person must exercise
reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm to others," the group wrote in a brief to the court, citing statistics about the growing prevalence of underage drinking and arguing that societal values compelled the court to rule in its favor.
But Duffly rejected those arguments as a rationale for changing liability laws, citing legislative action to address underage drinking and driving as the preferred remedies. "The Legislature's decision to deter and punish those who facilitate such conduct by the imposition of jail sentences and financial penalties, along with the stigma of a permanent criminal record, lends support to that argument," she wrote. "However, the public policy concerns raised in past social host cases remain relevant to our determination of the appropriate scope of common-law tort liability. We have not been given sufficient reason to significantly amend our tort law in the face of sound reasons for maintaining its current status."