Practicing Your Serve: A Look At "Social Host" Liability

Since most of us either entertain guests at our homes or are guests at the homes of others on a pretty regular basis, it's always a good time to discuss the legal responsibilities associated with the service of alcohol at social functions.

What Is a Social Host?

A "social host" is an individual who provides alcoholic beverages to guests in his or her home. Questions of legal responsibility may arise when an intoxicated guest subsequently causes injury to himself or herself or to a third person as a result of an automobile accident caused by his or her state of intoxication. "Social host" liability is based on the rationale that the server of alcohol has an obligation to the public at large to serve alcohol in a safe and responsible manner.

For many years, the law provided a broad immunity from legal liability to social hosts for injuries caused by their intoxicated guests. In the early to mid 1980s, however, many states began to examine the liability of social hosts as the deaths and serious injuries caused by drunk drivers became a major societal concern. As a result, the majority of state and federal courts have rejected or modified judicial rules which previously shielded social hosts from liability.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for instance, recognizes the liability of a social host for injuries caused by an intoxicated guest. In McGuigan vs. New England Telephone, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated that it would recognize liability where alcohol is served to a guest who the host either knows or should know is intoxicated.

In Connecticut, social hosts may also be held liable for injuries caused by one of their intoxicated guests. This potential liability is even broader when the guest in question is under the legal drinking age of 21. This reflects an increasing public awareness and concern that children, because of their youth and inexperience, are simply incapable of dealing responsibly with the effects of alcohol.

In Ely vs. Murphy, for example, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that social hosts could be held legally responsible for injuries caused by a minor to whom they had served alcohol at a high school graduation party. In a more recent case, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that patrons of a bar who knowingly purchase alcohol for a minor may be held liable for injuries subsequently inflicted by the minor in a motor vehicle accident as a result of his intoxication. With respect to minors, the Court held that a social host will be liable to the minor served or to innocent third parties injured if the Court or jury finds that the service of alcohol to the minor was the cause of the ensuing injuries.

Take Care

These decisions underscore the need to exercise caution when serving alcohol. Drunk driving is a serious problem in our society, and each of us has an obligation to help stem the tide of tragedies caused by drunken drivers. Graduation parties, summer gatherings and picnics are times of fun and celebration which often include the consumption of alcohol, but these emotions must be tempered with a strong sense of responsibility. Enjoy yourselves, but be cognizant of your legal liabilities as the host of these events.