A Party Host’s Potential Liability for Serving Alcohol to Guests
Updated: May 22
Entertaining in your apartment or home often includes serving alcohol to your guests. If a guest over-indulges and then, after leaving your home, causes a car accident injuring another, can you, as the host of the party be responsible for those injuries? Keep reading and you’ll find out!
The facts of these kind of cases are often similar – A host invites guests over to his or her home for a social event. A guest drinks too much alcohol during the event. The guest leaves the party and begins driving home. On the way home, the guest, as a result impairment due to alcohol, causes an accident and injures some other traveler on the road.
Your first instinct may be to think that the driver (i.e. the intoxicated guest) should be responsible. This is a reasonable thought and one that is correct under the law – the driver is indeed responsible. But the question that this article is addressing is whether the cause of the injuries can be expanded to include not only the driver, but also you, as the host who provided the alcohol. This issue is called “social host liability.”
In 1986, Massachusetts decided to expand liability to include the social host, but in somewhat limited circumstances which may surprise you. Let’s start with the general rule: A social host can be liable “to a person injured by an intoxicated guest’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person’s injury.” McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152, 162 (1986). This rule can be divided into a two-part test for establishing social host liability. (1) the social host must either know or should have known that his guest was drunk, and (2) the social host nevertheless “gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink.”
I’ll explain each of these two parts separately. When does a host know or when should a host know that his guest is intoxicated? One way is simply by observing the guest’s behavior. The signs of drunkenness are obvious (e.g., loud, boisterous behavior, unsteadiness, slurred speech, glassy eyes) and hosts should watch for these signs in their guests.
If a guest is not exhibiting any signs of intoxication, is there anything else that could put a host on notice that his guest might be intoxicated? The number of drinks a guest has had can sometimes be sufficient to put a host on notice that the guest could be intoxicated. What’s a sufficient number of drinks to draw that inference? The Massachusetts Appeals Court decided that consumption of 8 beers over two hours was not sufficient to put a host on notice, but that at least fifteen Heineken beers and six martinis was sufficient. Compare Kirby v. LeDisco, Inc., 34 Mass. App. Ct. 630, 632 (1993), with O'Hanley v. Ninety-Nine, Inc., 12 Mass. App. Ct. 64, 69 (1981). As you can see, the quantity of drinks which allow an inference of intoxication is very high.
Many of the cases in Massachusetts focus on the second part of the test for establishing social host liability – whether the social host gave the guest “or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink.” Let’s look at how our courts have interpreted this part of the test. It may surprise you.
In Ulwick v. DeChristopher, 411 Mass. 401, (1991), an eighteen-year-old hosted a “bring your own booze” party for some of his underage friends while his parents were out of town. The host provided no alcohol to the guests, but he did supply mixers. Some of the guests brought alcohol to the house. An obviously intoxicated guest left the party and crashed his car into a motorcycle, injuring the rider. Because the social host lacked control over the supply of liquor to guests (in other words, the alcohol was provided by guests), he was not liable to the injured motorcycle rider.
In Langemann v. Davis, 398 Mass. 166 (1986), a mother allowed her minor daughter to host an unsupervised party at the family home. One of the guests brought beer. An intoxicated guest left the party and caused a car accident. The Court decided that the mother was not liable to the injured motorist even if she “knew or reasonably should have known that alcoholic beverages would be available” at the party. Id. at 168. Again, like in Ulwick, the host did not supply the alcohol, and therefore liability could not attach to the host.
More recently, in Juliano v. Simpson, 461 Mass. 527 (2012), an underage host invited underage guests to her house while her parents were away. One of the guests brought beers over to the house. The host did not offer alcohol to guests herself, but provided a location where the guests were allowed to consume it. An intoxicated guest left the party and crashed into a utility pole, injuring himself and his passenger. The Court decided that the host was not liable for the passenger’s injuries because the host did not serve alcohol or exercise control over the supply of alcohol.
As you can see, the outcome of these cases depends heavily on whether or not the host supplied the alcohol. If guests bring their own alcohol, the host will likely not be found to have the ability to control the consumption of alcohol, and therefore will not be liable to the injured party. This is true even if the drinking occurs on the host’s property and even if the host knows that guests are becoming intoxicated.
I have kept this discussion to liability of social hosts, as opposed to commercial ones (e.g., bars or restaurants), but a social host can also “host” a guest outside of his home. If you purchase drinks for a guest out at a bar, knowing that the guest is intoxicated, you could potentially be liable if that guest injures a third party. See Makynen v. Mustakangas, 39 Mass. App. Ct. 309 (1995); Dube v. Lanphear, 69 Mass. App. Ct. 386 (2007).
Massachusetts courts have been reluctant to expand the general rule of social host liability in cases where the host did not provide or serve the alcohol. Nevertheless, no matter who supplies the alcohol, if you are hosting a party, keep an eye on your guests, and suggest that guests don’t drive themselves if they plan on drinking. If you have questions on the scope of social host liability, please give me a call! The consultation is free!