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