Massachusetts Social Host Liability Narrowed by SJC

In a decision that has somewhat clarified the scope of social host liability, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) earlier this week issued a decision that absolved parents from liability where injuries result from a party their underage children hosted, but did not supply alcohol at. Social host liability is the body of tort law that determines if an owner of private property is liable for Massachusetts accidents and injuries that result from the conduct of a person who became intoxicated at the host’s premises.

I’ve previously blogged about on the subject of alcohol liability, in circumstances where a defendant is a business establishment such as a restaurant or bar. That area of law is known as Massachusetts Dram Shop liability or Massachusetts liquor liability. However, when the defendant is not a commercial business but is instead a homeowner who hosted a party or event at which alcohol was served and injuries were caused by a person who became intoxicated at the event, that form of liability is known as “Massachusetts social host liability.” This liability originates from certain laws which state that social hosts who provide alcohol to their guests can be held legally responsible for the injuries or harm that may result to another person if alcohol has been provided negligently to someone attending the function. Previously, it has been clear that if someone hosted a social gathering at their residence, where alcohol was excessively consumed by a person, and the intoxicated person later caused injury to an innocent party, liability attached to the event host.

This most recent decision has somewhat narrowed that doctrine. In a unanimous ruling, the court held that underage persons who host underage drinking parties, yet do not directly supply the alcohol, cannot be held liable if someone attending the party is later injured due to resulting intoxication. The court also relieved parents or owners of the property where the part took place of any liability, if they did not know that the party was being held, and did not play any role in providing the alcohol that was consumed.

The decision involved a lawsuit filed by the family of a young woman (underage) who was severely brain damaged when the car that was being driven by her boyfriend at the time, crashed after attending a party in 2007. According to court documents, both the victim and her boyfriend had attended a party at the home of another young woman, who was 19 years old. The boyfriend had brought his own alcohol to the party for himself and the victim. The victim sued both the 19 year-old girl who hosted the party, as well as her father, as the owner of the property. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that court records indicate that the father was not home at the time the party was held. The suit alleged negligence on the part of both the 19 year-old host, as well as her father, and sought damages to pay for the personal injuries and catastrophic harm done to the victim, who will remain forever brain damaged as the result of this incident.

Despite this tragedy, the court refused to impose liability in this case, citing previous rulings that absolved property owners of liability under circumstances where party guests consumed alcohol that they brought themselves. Writing the unanimous opinion, Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote, “We are asked to enlarge the scope of social host liability under our common law by extending a duty of care to an underage host who does not supply alcohol to underage guests, but provides a location where they are permitted to consume it. We decline to do so and reaffirm that liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol.”

Predictably, the attorney defending the 19 year-old host of the party and her father, found the court ruling appropriate. As a Westwood, Massachusetts accident lawyer, I feel this decision is in part well-reasoned, and in part lacks logic. As to the parent of the 19 year-old party host, I would agree that he should not be held liable under these specific circumstances, since he was neither home at the time the party was held, he was not aware the party was being held, and he did not provide or make available any of the alcohol consumed. However, the 19 year-old host of the party (his daughter) was fully aware of what was going on – that alcohol was being consumed, illegally and criminally, and she did nothing to stop or prevent it. While factually she did not “provide” the alcohol, and she could not have legally purchased it since she was underage, I believe that liability under these circumstances should attach to the daughter, while her father should have been dismissed as a defendant. I recognize that, legally, such an outcome is a close call, but the greater goal of a just result would have been obtained had this approach been taken.

Cases like this illustrate just how dangerous irresponsible consumption of alcohol can be, and the tragic consequences it can bring. Importantly, though, remember that the Massachusetts social host liability law does not immediately impose liability on anyone hosting a party at their home when injuries caused by alcohol occur: It must first be shown that the social host negligently allowed a guest to become intoxicated. Serving a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail to a guest in your home does will not result in blanket liability. Negligence must first be proven.

If you or someone you care about has been injured as the result of another person becoming intoxicated at a social event, call our office at Ph. (781) 320-0062; or Ph.: (617) 285-3600, or email us here. We’d be glad to provide you with a free initial consultation to advise you of your legal options.