In the 1970s a string of California court cases established a de facto social host liability in the state. Premised on California Civil Code section 1714, which provides that every person is responsible for the result of any actions taken without ordinary care or skill, these cases established the serving of alcohol in private homes as a potential legal cause of a resulting injury. In other words, under cases such as Coulter v. Superior Court (21 Cal.3d 144) a private person who allowed guests to consume alcohol at a home party could be held financially liable if that person had a car accident on the way home in which a third party was injured.
The Legislature intervenes
Dissatisfied with this line of cases, the California Legislature got involved. Concerned about the potential implications of these cases such as the negative impact the new liability rules might have on a person’s capacity to hold a private party, the Legislature amended section 1714 by adding parts (b) and (c) to the code. Under this new language, personal liability for serving alcohol at private functions was specifically removed and the prior line of cases abruptly overturned. This was accomplished by articulating that the legal cause of an accident was not the furnishing of the alcohol but rather the consumption of the alcohol, limiting liability to the drunk driver.
Why did they do it?
California stands as one of only a handful of states that specifically limit social host liability. While there are many arguments both for and against such limitations, they primarily boil down to where blame should be placed and who is best able to take relevant precautions. In private homes, unlike at public bars or restaurants, partiers generally are not served. Instead, home bars are often open to all who attend and drinks are poured by each guest individually. Furthermore, even if a bar is managed, private citizens may not be equipped to determine when a guest has had too much to drink and may not be socially positioned to curtail a friend or family member’s behavior.
The return of Social Host liability
However, in 2011 the California legislature walked back, somewhat, its earlier limitation on social host liability by imposing a specific category of situations in which a private person could be held liable for the actions of a drunken party guest. Under the newly added section 1714(d), social hosts who knowingly serve alcohol to anyone under the age of 21 can face potential liability for a resulting injury to a third party.
Unfortunately, while the law is clear about who qualifies as a minor and clear that a court can impose liability; no specific requirements were drafted regarding exactly what steps a social host must take to prevent minors from drinking. Is actively serving underage guests required or does merely leaving a bar open to guests in general (with the result that underage guests have access) sufficient to establish liability? Until more cases move through the courts dealing with this change in the law, these questions will remain open.
While there generally isn’t a statewide law holding social hosts liable for the injuries caused by drunk drivers leaving a party, that does not mean every host is in the clear. In addition to the restrictions against serving alcohol to minors mentioned above, some local jurisdictions impose their own more strict liability rules. Before hosting your next party, it’s a good idea to check with your attorney to see if special city or county rules apply to your locale.
In the meantime…
While the courts work out exactly what the new rules about minors mean, it’s best for social hosts to play it safe. If you are planning to host a party or other event at which alcohol will be served, there are several steps you can take to help minimize your liability and to guard against injury. Even without legal liability, serving alcohol to minors is reckless and can cost lives. Here are some things you can do to avoid trouble.
- Post a responsible and sober adult to keep an eye on the bar.
- If minors are going to be present at your event, keep all alcohol out of easy reach. Perhaps designate a separate room or sectioned-off part of the kitchen as the bar and keep minors out of that space.
- Keep an eye on your guests, if they seem like they’ve had too much, say something.
- Arrange for intoxicated guests to sleep over or find alternate transportation for them. Take away the keys of anyone who doesn’t seem fit to drive and request that all guests designate a sober driver.
- Avoid getting drunk at your own party. You’re not going to be able to monitor anything if you are the one who is impaired.
Alternative routes to recovery
If you have been injured by a drunk driver who recently left a private party, the law does offer some options for recovery that may be worth exploring. As mentioned above, if the at-fault driver was underage, the law does not protect the social host who served the minor. In addition, a person who negligently entrusts their vehicle to a driver who is intoxicated might be liable for the loan of the vehicle even if they are not liable for serving the alcohol. Finally, the driver is often the most directly responsible party and if they have insurance or other assets a recovery from them may be possible regardless of who served them alcohol.
Ask your attorney
In short, these cases are potentially complex and routes to recovery might not be immediately obvious. This does not mean that you cannot be made whole for your injuries, but it does mean that your best bet is to seek the advice of an experienced attorney who knows the various ways in which the law protects the victims of drunk drivers. Call personal injury attorney Don Sjaarda today at (714) 963-8216 for a consultation.