Attorney and parents discuss teen drinking on the Island
Photo by Michelle Williams
The Dukes County Health Council Youth Task Force (YTF) hosted a program on May 30 focused on social host liability, the legal term that describes the criminal and civil liabilities that apply when a host furnishes alcohol to a guest. Attorney Mark J. Hoover, a 1983 Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduate, spoke about the law, in particular the possible legal and civil consequences when adults furnish alcohol to minors, or host events where minors consume alcohol.
The event sparked a candid conversation in which parents shared stories of how they dealt with their teenagers drinking.
A parent of a senior at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School who asked not to be identified to spare her daughter any embarrassment shared a story of what occurred when her daughter threw a party in her guesthouse without her knowledge. The event, which began with a few friends casually drinking, ended at 1:30 am with the parent discovering 60 kids on the rental property and $250 worth of alcohol missing from her house.
"I flipped out, and I kicked all those kids out," said the mother. "It was beyond my comprehension of what was going on. All I wanted was them to be gone, and my daughter was in shock because this small party turned into this huge thing because of Facebook."
The mother said that none of the Island teens had walked past her home, but walked through the back of the property. She said that her daughter made sure the teens didn't drive home, but were given rides.
Still unsure if she made the proper decision, the parent asked Mr. Hoover if she could be held responsible in such a situation.
Mr. Hoover said she could be, if the teenagers drove home and were pulled over or were in an accident. While she didn't have any idea the party was going on initially, once she realized the teenagers were intoxicated, she assumed liability. "If you just said off you go, get off my property, you've now opened yourself up to a lawsuit," he said. "There is a duty you have to keeping that person off the road."
Additionally, Mr. Hoover recommended calling the police when unsure how to handle the situation.
Youth Task Force coalition co-coordinator Theresa Manning said police understand the situation parents sometimes encounter. "The cops have promised us that if you're in a situation where the situation got out of control and you make the call to the police, you will not be charged," she said. "They're there to try and get kids home safe. Most of the cops are parents in the community too."
While Ms. Manning said police officers would most often be sympathetic, Mr. Hoover said litigators would not. "The days of turning a blind eye, saying kids will be kids, are over," he said. "More district attorneys are taking these teenage drinking cases seriously on the criminal standpoint."
Convictions for underage drinking often have unforeseen consequences, such as having to disclose it when applying for summer jobs and college. "People looking at applications say, 'I've got someone from the Vineyard who is involved with band and field hockey, and she's got a great grade point average, but she's got this particular criminal problem, and I've got a girl from Nantucket who got xy and z and nothing criminal on her record, which one are they going to take?" Mr. Hoover rhetorically asked those in the room.
Mr. Hoover provided an example of where parents might cross the line into personal liability. "If your 20-year-old son is home from college and you're having a spaghetti dinner and you offer your child a glass of wine, that is not going to be a violation of the social host liability statute," he said.
"However, if your son brings his friend home, you cannot give someone else's child a glass of wine to go with dinner." he said, "That would be a violation. Your own child, it's fine. Someone else's, it's not"
Mr. Hoover works in the Boston law firm of Campbell, Campbell, Edwards, and Conroy. Attorney Richard P. Campbell designed the program to inform parents, students, and teachers about the social host law following a serious case.
Mr. Campbell represented Ruth Langemann in the 1986 Massachusetts Supreme Court case Langemann v. Davis. Ms. Langemann suffered serious injuries after being struck by an underage drunk driver, Darren Hathaway, who was driving home from a party at a friend's house. The friend's mother, Margaret Davis, was the homeowner, and though she allowed her daughter to have a party, she was unaware that alcohol was present.
Attorney Campbell argued that the homeowner is responsible for injuries caused by a drunk driver who consumes alcohol at their house, whether or not the homeowner is aware that there is alcohol present.
Mr. Hoover often speaks to high schoolers and their parents, at an age some believe to be too late.
Ewell Hopkins, a parent of three children in Vineyard schools, said, "You've got to get them when they're young, 12 or 13 years old. Twelve is not too young."
Mr. Hopkins added that many parents seem shocked regarding binge drinking, but they should not be. "I'm 53 years old, and 12-year-olds were binge drinking when I was 12," he said. "None of this is new. What could be new is if we could take on the fact that young people don't have to do this."
Ms. Manning added "We have to change the climate of drinking, especially on the Island."
The Dukes County Health Council created the Youth Task Force in 2004 in response to concerns over findings of a 2000 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that documented levels of substance use and other risky behaviors among Martha's Vineyard youth to be significantly higher than state and national levels.
The mission of the group is to "reduce substance use and other risky behaviors," according to the group's website.