Am I Legally Responsible for My Drunk Guests?

Be a responsible host if you're serving alcohol at a party or you could face serious legal consequences.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated 4/14/2023

Question

If someone gets drunk at my party, am I liable if they get into an accident?

Answer: Probably. Social Hosts Can Be Liable for Injuries Caused by Intoxicated Guests

Maybe. Most states have "social host liability" laws that allow a person injured by an intoxicated person, like the victim of a drunk driver, to sue the host who served the alcohol. In some cases, hosts may even be criminally prosecuted under serving intoxicated persons (SIP) laws. Not all states have social host liability laws and laws vary in the states that do.

Social host liability laws are similar to dram shop laws that impose liability on people and businesses that sell alcohol for the acts of their intoxicated customers.

Example

Let's say Heather invites Damon over to her house for a wine and cheese party. Damon ignores the cheese in favor of glass after glass of his favorite rosé, which Heather continues to encourage long after it's clear that Damon has had a few too many. After a few hours, Heather says goodnight to Damon and walks him to his car. At an intersection, Damon blows through a red light and plows his car into Paul's car.

In every state, Paul would be able to file a car accident insurance claim and lawsuit against Damon over the accident. And in states with social host liability laws, Paul may also be able to sue Heather. But whether Heather is liable varies from state to state. In some states, Heather will only be liable if she somehow broke the law in providing alcohol to Damon (if he's under 21, for example.) Elsewhere, Heather may be liable if she continued to serve alcohol to Damon when she knew or should have known that he was intoxicated and about to drive.

What about Damon? Can Damon sue Heather if he's injured in the accident? Almost certainly not. Even in states that have fairly broad social host laws, hosts are not liable for injuries sustained by their drunken guests. Hosts are typically only liable for the harm their drunken guests cause to other people. One notable exception is when a host provides alcohol to a minor. In that situation, a minor who is injured in an alcohol-related accident may be able to file a lawsuit against the host even if the minor caused the accident.

Protect Yourself and Your Guests

If you plan to serve alcohol to guests, you can take steps to reduce your exposure as a host and keep everyone safe:

  • Understand your state laws. Some states hold hosts liable for overserving guests. Some states hold hosts liable for serving underage drinkers. A few states don't impose any liability at all. You need to know the laws in your state to protect yourself.
  • Hire a bartender. Most bartenders are trained to recognize signs of intoxication and know when and how to cut partygoers off.
  • Carefully pick your venue. If you host a party at a restaurant or bar with a liquor license instead of your home you can limit your risk of getting sued.
  • Don't push alcohol on your guests. Be responsible. You don't have to make sure your guests' glasses are always full to have fun. And make sure you have a variety of non-alcoholic drinks available for your guests, especially as the party winds down.
  • Don't let drunk guests drive home. Encourage guests to pick a designated driver, get a ride home from a sober guest, call a cab or rideshare, or spend the night at your house if they are too drunk to drive.

Learn more about Alcohol-Related Accidents and Injuries.

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