Social Host Liability Laws and Lawsuits Over Alcohol-Related Accidents

A party host or other provider of alcohol may be liable when an intoxicated person causes an injury.

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"Social host liability" is a legal concept that some states follow, allowing a host of a party or other gathering to be held liable in certain situations where a guest becomes intoxicated and ends up causing an injury to a third party.

Social host liability is similar to dram shop laws. The difference is that a dram shop law imposes liability only on sellers of alcoholic beverages (like bars, liquor stores, and restaurants) whereas social host liability can be imposed on anyone who provides alcoholic beverages to guests or visitors, if that guest goes on to injure someone while intoxicated.

Most states have dram shop laws, but not all states have social host liability laws. In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at social host liability and explore a few key issues that come up in these kinds of cases.

Who Can Be Held Liable Under Social Host Liability Laws?

Usually, these laws apply equally to homeowners, renters of property, or anyone else who provides alcohol to a guest who gets drunk and goes on to injure someone. Almost any occasion can give rise to social host liability, not just a party. However, keep in mind that most states with social host liability laws only impose responsibility on a host who provides alcohol to someone under the legal drinking age, which is 21 in all states.

Who Can Sue Under a Social Host Liability Law?

Remember that not all states have social host liability laws, so if your situation is one where a host could be liable, you would want to check with a local lawyer to find out whether your state has this kind of law on the books. As a general rule, anyone who was injured by an intoxicated guest can bring a personal injury claim under these kinds of laws.

There are two types of social host liability cases, first party and third party cases. Let's take a closer look at both.

First Party Social Host Liability Cases

A “first party” social host liability case exists when the injured plaintiff is the person who was given the alcoholic drinks. Most states do not allow first party social host liability cases unless the plaintiff is a minor.

Third Party Social Host Liability Cases

A “third party” social host liability case exists when the injured person is someone other than the drunk person. So, if you are hit by a drunk driver, and the driver got drunk at a party, you would potentially have a third party social host liability case against the person who provided the alcohol at the party (but again, you need to check the status of the law in your state).

Proving Liability in a Social Host Liability Case

Social host liability cases are not always based on negligence, which is the standard type of liability in car accident cases. In general, negligence means acting unreasonably or unsafely, based on the circumstances.

Liability in social host liability cases can be based on negligence, but can also be based on recklessness or even intentional conduct, depending on the individual state’s law. The legal concept of negligence is pretty straightforward, so let’s look at the last two in a little more detail.

Recklessness

Recklessness is when a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that something unsafe will happen.

Basically, if you knew or should have known that an action was likely to be unreasonably safe, but you went ahead and did that action anyway, you have acted recklessly. An example of recklessness in a car accident case is driving at 70 MPH through a residential neighborhood where the speed limit is 25 MPH and you know that children are often playing in the street.

An example of recklessness in a social host liability case might be if a host offers his/her guest another drink, knowing that the guest has already had quite a few, is acting tipsy, and has to drive home soon. In that situation, the host knew or should have known that giving the guest another drink was likely to be unreasonably safe, but he/she gave the guest another drink anyway.

Intentional Conduct

In some states, the social host liability laws require that the host act intentionally or with knowledge of the situation before he/she will be held liable.

For example, the social host liability law might require that the host know that his/her guest was under the legal drinking age (age 21) in order to be held liable. So, if the host credibly testifies that he/she did not know that the guest was under age 21, the host would not be held liable under that state’s social host liability law.

Alternatively, the social host liability law might only hold the host liable if the host knew (not "knew or should have known," but actually knew) that the guest was intoxicated. In that case, the host could try to escape liability by claiming that he/she simply didn't think the guest was drunk.

Learn more about Alcohol-Related Accidents and Injuries.

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