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.

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

"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. In this article, we'll take an in-depth look at social host liability and answer some key questions, including:

  • Who can be held liable under social host liability laws?
  • How are these laws different from dram shop laws?
  • Who can sue under a social host liability law?
  • What do you have to prove to win this kind of case?

Who Can Be Held Liable Under Social Host Liability Laws?

Social host liability laws are similar to dram shop laws, but there are important differences. For example:

  • Dram shop laws impose liability only on sellers of alcoholic beverages (like bars, liquor stores, and restaurants). 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.
  • Social host liability laws are often (but not always) focused on the liability of adults who provide alcohol to people under the legal drinking age, which is 21 in all states. Dram shop laws usually apply even when the person purchasing the alcohol is 21 or older.

Remember that each state makes its own rules covering dram shop and social host liability, so there's a lot of variation depending on where you live. For example, most states' social host laws are designed to curb underage drinking, but in several states (including Maine and New Jersey) a host could be liable even if the guest they over-serve is old enough to drink legally.

Usually, social host 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.

Who Can File a Lawsuit Under a Social Host Liability Law?

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 don't 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, let's say you're hit by a drunk driver who became intoxicated at a party. Depending on the law in your state, you could have a third-party social host liability case against the person who provided the alcohol at the party.

How Do You Prove Liability in a "Social Host" Case?

To prove liability in any civil lawsuit, a plaintiff has to show that the defendant behaved in a way that makes them legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries. In some social host liability cases, you have to prove that the defendant was negligent—that is, that they acted unreasonably or unsafely under the circumstances. This is the same standard that applies in car accident cases.

But liability in these cases can also be based on reckless or even intentional conduct, depending on the law in your state. Let's look at these two standards 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 unsafe, 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 miles per hour through a residential neighborhood where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour 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 a 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 gave the guest another drink anyway.

Intentional Conduct

Some states' social host liability laws require that hosts act intentionally or with knowledge of the situation before they can be held liable for injuries resulting from a guest's intoxication.

For example, the social host liability law might require that the host know that a guest was under the legal drinking age of 21 in order to be held liable. So, if the host credibly testifies that they didn't know their guest was under 21, they might avoid liability under their state's 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 they simply didn't think the guest was drunk.

Learn More About Alcohol-Related Accidents and Injuries

As we've discussed, the laws covering social host liability vary by state. If you have questions about your state's rules, it might be helpful to check with a local lawyer who has experience handling personal injury cases where alcohol played a role. You can also read more about alcohol-related accidents and your potential liability if you serve alcohol at a party.

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