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Newsletter > September 1998 > "TWO STATES – TWO DIFFERENT OUTCOMES ON SOCIAL HOST LIABILITY"
TWO STATES – TWO DIFFERENT OUTCOMES ON SOCIAL HOST LIABILITY
Gary E. Powell
Earlier this year, the highest courts of New York and Washington were confronted with social host liability cases arising from injuries suffered to third persons caused by an intoxicated underage drinker. The results in the two cases underscore the difference in approaches to social host liability throughout the country. Social host liability is a state law issue and is subject to the law of the state where an injury occurs. As a result, it is important to know how your state deals with social host liability. You should also realize that social host liability deals only with whether the host is liable for damages caused by someone who drank at your party. There are still issues of criminal responsibility for providing underage persons with alcohol at your party. The best approach is to take the responsibility that you will do whatever is reasonable to ensure that underage members and guests will not be provided alcohol, nor be allowed to consume alcohol, at fraternity-sponsored events or in fraternity-controlled facilities.
The New York Court of Appeals was recently confronted with the issue whether the host of a “keg party” for minors might be liable as “a person who, by unlawfully furnishing or unlawfully assisting in procuring alcoholic beverages” to minors, caused the injuries of a third party.1 Carol Rust, a minor, was injured when she was punched in the face by another partygoer, Stephen Tarantino, also a minor, after a party at Heidi Reyer’s house. Tarrantino had been drinking heavily at the party, and struck Rust during a brawl on the street outside Reyer’s house.
[The court noted that the minimum drinking age laws have not proven effective “in stopping minors from obtaining alcohol in a social set ting, where it is provided to them by individuals who have little, if any, financial disincentive for doing so.”]
The party took place at the Reyer house while her parents were away on a weekend vacation. When a local high school fraternity heard about the plans for the party, its members approached Reyer and convinced her to allow them to bring beer to the party. Those attending the party would pay a one-time fee to receive a 16-ounce cup, allowing them unlimited access to the beer. Reyer agreed to have beer at the party in exchange for a portion of the proceeds. Although Reyer did not drink or dispense any beer, collect any money from her guests or distribute cups, she did allow the fraternity to store the beer on the premises and conduct the beer sales in her backyard. During the party, she observed many of the estimated 150 underaged guests consuming beer.
The court noted that “underage drinking is a significant societal problem that has generated widespread concern” and that “all 50 states have set minimum drinking ages.” The court also noted that the minimum drinking age laws have not proven effective “in stopping minors from obtaining alcohol in a social setting, where it is provided to them by individuals who have little, if any, financial disincentive for doing so.” In an effort to provide that disincentive, New York law provides that any person who is injured by “reason of the intoxication or impairment of ability of any person under the age of twenty-one years … shall have a right of action to recover actual damages against any person who knowingly causes such intoxication … by unlawfully furnishing to or unlawfully assisting in procuring alcoholic beverages” for such underage person.
Even though she did not personally serve the beer to the underaged partygoers, “her complete complicity in the fraternity’s plans to furnish beer” was evident. Without that advance complicity, the beer could not have been served as it was. If these facts are proven at trial, Ms. Reyer could be found liable for Ms. Rust’s injuries.
In February, the Washington Supreme Court decided a case where the issue was whether “a social host who furnishes alcohol to a minor owes a duty of care to third persons injured by the intoxicated minor.”2 The minor, Steven Hicks, attended Jamie and Anna Hicks’ wedding reception. Following dinner where wine and champagne were served, drinks were available at a hosted bar. There was conflicting testimony about the “hosted bar.” Steven Hicks testified that he helped himself to drinks left unattended at an “open bar” while others testified that the bar was hosted at all times and guests were not allowed to serve themselves. Regardless, Steven Hicks admitted to consuming alcohol at the reception.
At about midnight, Steven Hicks left the reception in his sister’s car. At approximately 1:00 a.m., he was involved in an accident with plaintiff Timothy Reynolds. Both Hicks and Reynolds registered blood alcohol levels of .17 percent. Mr. Reynolds, who was seriously hurt as a result of the accident, sued Steven Hicks, his sister, and Jamie and Anna Hicks. Steven and his sister settled with Reynolds. The case proceeded under a social host theory against Jamie and Anna Hicks. The trial court entered summary judgment against Reynolds finding that Washington does not impose social host liability for furnishing alcohol to a minor who later injures a third person.3 Reynolds’ appeal eventually made its way to the Washington Supreme Court.
The Washington Supreme Court decided that although Washington law previously recognized that a minor who is injured as a result of alcohol intoxication has a cause of action against the social host who illegally supplied the alcohol to the minor, that same right against the social host does not extend to a third party who is injured by the intoxicated minor.
1 Rust v. Reyer, 91 N.Y.2d 355, 693 N.E.2d 1074, 670 N.Y.S.2d 822 (1998)
2 Reynolds v. Hicks, 134 Wash.2d 491, 951 P.2d 761 (1998).
3 Summary judgment is granted when there are no material issues of fact in dispute and the case can be decided based on the applicable law of the case prior to trial. In this case, the sol issue was whet.her social hosts owe a duty to third persons to not furnish alcohol to minors. The issue of whether a duty exists in the first circumstance is a question of law that is properly decided by the court in a motion for summary judgement. If no duty exists, there could be no recovery against the social hosts regardless of the facts offered by the injured third party.